Extracted and analysed ten years worth of my Kindle highlights

Have spent a dozen hours this week slowly getting my highlights out of the Amazon cloud and then putting them into my own note-taking software. This lets me access roughly ten years of highlighted passages from over 500 books (it doesn't include the large number of public domain books that I read and highlighted, which is a shame.) It's interesting to see the kinds of passages that struck me.

Early on, I sometimes highlighted passages that struck me as good descriptive writing. I've never been great at descriptive writing, and I still mourn the deficit. Prose fiction is essentially composed of four things: sense perception; dialogue; narrative summary; and rumination. Nobody wants to overuse rumination (because the entire internet and most of the noise in our own head is already composed of rumination), so if you're not good at desciption, then you're essentially left with work that's mostly dialogue and narrative summary. Kind of a pain!

But at the same time, I just don't like describing things. In my own life, I'm not particularly observant or present--my life is mostly disembodied and mental, full of remembrances and thoughts and feelings and flashes of perception. Anyway, ten years ago I was still trying to get good at this stuff, which is why I would highlight passages like this:

The coast, the endlessly rewinding spills of the tide, green curbs of seawater breaking into flat white sizzling foam.
--Private Citizen by Tony Tulathimutte

That's pretty good descriptive writing. I probably wouldn't put 'rewinding' and 'spills' and 'curbs' into the same image, because it's a mixed metaphor--but the basic conceit (the ebb of waves looks like the rewinding of the initial crash) is something I could never come up with.

But that's really a minority of what I highlighted. In general, my highlights fall into three categories:

  • aphorisms
  • neat bits of narrative summary
  • good observations about human nature

I am a sucker for a good aphorism (who isn't?), and I've got hundreds in here. The Journals of Jules Renard provide a few good ones, like:

To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.


Modesty is becoming to the great. What is difficult is to be modest when one is a nobody.

Lol, whose are fun, aren't they? I've always wanted to be a person who knows quotes.

Neat bits of narrative summary
Once I stopped trying to become a better descriptive writer, I started leaning more heavily on narrative summary (where I've had a bit more success developing my skills), and over the years I've highlighted a lot of neat passages that show what a far-ranging narrator can do:

Here's a bit from the third volume of Knausgaard, for instance, which mixes summary and rumination:

After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.

Or this passage from Carol Shield's Small Ceremonies, which is not truly embodied, not truly in scene, but is more of a description of what it feels like to send out christmas cards.

This is a long, tedious task, and it irritates me to separate and put in order the constellations of our friends and to send them each these feeble scratched messages. But for the sake of the return, for the crash of creamy envelopes blazing with seals that will soon spill down upon us, I push on. For I want to hear from the O’Malleys who lived across the hall from us in our first apartment. I want to know if the Gorkys are still together and where the best man at our wedding, Kurt Weisman, has moved. Dr. Lawrence who supervised Martin’s graduate work and his wife Bettina always write us from Florida and so do the Grahams, the Lords, the Reillys, the Jensens. What matter that they were often dull and that we might have drifted apart eventually? What matter that they were sometimes stingy or overly frank or forgetful? They want to wish us a merry Christmas. They want to wish us all the best in the New Year. I can’t help but take the printed card literally; these are our friends; they love us. We love them.

Again, I wish that I was better at narrative summary. To work best, it can't just stay in summary (although sometimes it does)--it should move delicately through concrete details and rumination and memory and back into summary. Oh well, I'll get there someday!

True-feeling observations about human nature

This probably comprises the largest single category. It's just a bunch of stuff, whether from novels or nonfiction or memoir or philosophy or essays, that feels very true! It's a collection of that weird sort of fact that, when you hear it, you feel like you already knew this thing--even though you didn't.

Rutherford sometimes wondered, running his long nervous fingers over his pale brow and through his prematurely gray hair, if there was any quality more respected by the timid remnants of an older New York society, even by the flattest-heeled and most velvet-gowned old maid, than naked aggression.
--Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss

Sometimes these observations come in the form of a type, where you instantly think: I know this person!

Everyone who knew Ovcharov proclaimed him a fine fellow. He earned this appellation through his deference to the ladies, amenability, tidiness, indefatigability, and his enthusiasm for all of society’s amusements, along with his customary readiness to expound on absolutely anything and equal readiness to listen to absolutely anything. But whatever society Ovcharov appeared in throughout his wandering life, he was never anything more than a fine fellow. Nowhere did he leave a strong impression; he was easily liked and easily forgotten. With women, in love and hate, he played only an incidental role; among serious people his presence brought on a slight sense of boredom; and through his entire life he had failed to attain a single devoted friend.
--City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Oftentimes these observations are aphoristic in style, like this one from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The first moment of the public safety is devoted to gratitude and joy; but the second is diligently occupied by envy and calumny.

Sometimes writers say, "All your sentences should be beautiful." This is absolute nonsense. Nobody can read and remember every sentence. Your story as a whole should be beautiful. There is no need to write in soundbytes. I've read some fantastic books that haven't inspired me to highlight anything at all.

Nor do I think I'm a particularly highlighteable author. But when it comes to my two published books, my most popular highlights have been:

I'm not a sympathetic main character. My quirks are not lovable. I am not clumsy. I am not overwhelmed by life. I am not unlucky in love.
--Enter Title Here

The thing is, you can't just be yourself if whenever people look at you they see something entirely different
--We Are Totally Normal

I immensely enjoyed doing all this database work to pull everything out and get it organized. I taught myself the basics of regex so I could extract the author and title data from the file names and add in the proper taxes. Makes me feel quite accomplished. I do sometimes think maybe I ought to learn computers and become a computer-doing-person. I'd have been good at it. I have the mind for it. But it's fun enough as a little hobby.

Not sure what my next digital maintenance project will be. I do have lots of journal entries socked away in various places: might be worth extracting those and putting them all together in one spot. Have also been meaning to do some scanning projects.

Oh! I continue to highlight, of course. Right now I'm reading Es'kia Mphabele's Down Second Avenue. He's a mid-20th century Black South African writer, and this is his memoir of growing up and becoming a man.

My passion for reading grew stronger. The white family for whom my mother worked gave me old newspapers and periodicals. They merely shrugged their shoulders when my mother told them why I wanted the papers. More than that, they showed no interest. I was disappointed. I thought naïvely that if they were superior to me and my kind they should show some interest in a less fortunate creature who wanted to acquire something like the degree of literacy they enjoyed. Even if it were the kind of interest that might prompt one to retort: ‘Say, he reads English!’ Yes, I was very proud to be able to read English

I mean doesn't that seem so true? Obviously people whose lives are based in a system of racial superiority will be unwilling to see any signs of competence amongst the Black people around them. It's not that they're consciously putting down or dismissing him--they simply won't allow themselves to hear the fact that he might have a skill they could value.

Random Article

Do people want dogs only for their looks? What are the motivations, values and behaviours of those who decide to go out and buy a dog today? These questions are part of a small but growing area of study. Although the research is still preliminary, available data suggest that physical appearance is the single most important factor driving dog-acquisition practices in the United States and throughout much of the West. And the look that we’re going for right now is ‘cute’.
-- "Breeding Dogs To Be Cute And Anthropomorphic Is Animal Cruelty"

Mind is blown, is there a reason for wanting a dog besides their cuteness? Do some dogs do the dishes or something? Is there a dog that'll pay rent? There's a genre of article that seems to traffic in the weirdest sort of mock outrage. Of course people want dogs to be cute. Of course dogs are bred to be cute. Of course it's not good for dogs' health. If we cared about their health, there wouldn't be any dog-breeding at all. Sheesh. But all that aside, it's still a good article about the way cuteness works, how cuteness gets engineered into dogs, and the toll it takes on them (i.e. we may purposefully breed dogs with high needs precisely because being 'helpless' is cute)

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Switching to Android; and reactions to Aldington’s DEATH OF A HERO

Hello friends. I got a new phone, and it's an android. My wife said moving to android had impacted our marriage way more than me transitioning did. She's not wrong!

I just wanted a change, and I got tired of feeling beholden to a hardware company. Nothing wrong with Apple, but I should be able to buy whatever phone I want, and in this case that was a really fancy folding phone. It's the big samsung phone that unfolds into a small tablet. Not really something anyone needed or wanted, but I like it. Also the e-reader software I use (KOReader) isn't supported on iOS.

I also got a new phone number to go with the new phone, so it's been an adjustment. I still have the old number, so I'm not in a rush to switch everyone over. But it's nice to not be bombarded with spam calls and texts. The hardest thing is the two-factor authentification systems a lot of online services use, including a lot of random ones. So I'll want to, say, order something from Uber Eats and then I'll have to dig up my old phone to input the code. I don't really want to put my new phone number into the system bc then I'll get spam calls again. Eventually I'll move the old number to, like, a google voice app so it just becomes a virtual number or something. I dunno.

Android isn't as good as iOS. I can't whole-heartedly recommend it. Kinda like switching to windows, it works less well, but you can do more. With Android if there's something I want to do, I can change it. Like the interface for the home screen wasn't great, so I installed a new launcher, and now it's really cool and customizable, and I can access my apps however I want to. Of course with iOS you don't have these problems in the first place!

And one misses certain iOS features. Like when I was completely on iOS my headphones would switch seamlessly from device to device as I started using different ones. Now I have to fiddle with stuff to get sound from a new device.

But you know what? Maybe technology isn't meant to be seamless? Because ultimately, all the seamlessness just led to more efficient consumption of Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Netflix. Not particularly useful stuff. Like lately I've been using the Samsung Fold Pen to write my texts (bc I find the virtual keyboard a bit difficult to use), and it's kind of fun to do handwriting, even though it's slower.

Who the heck knows?

This is my last day of childcare before my surgery. Am cleaning up some odds and ends. I've been reading a new different books lately, but last night I started Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and found myself quite gripped. It's a novel that at least attempts to be a social history of the type of young intellectual who died in World War I--the way they were raised, their attitudes towards sex and work and religion, and their various despairs and confusions. The writing is lively and aphoristic. The book was censored heavily by the publishers (apparently most books were back then) but the author elected to mark the censored bits with a row of asterisks, which is fascinating, as it leaves you to wonder what's getting left out.

It's like no other British book of its era, very personable, intimate and modern, with a far-ranging omniscient narrator--almost as if Anthony Trollope had written a novel, but in a modern voice, or maybe like if George Orwell had allowed more of his rage to show through in his books. Here's a bravura passage:

How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood? Something is unfulfilled, and that is poisoning us. It is poisoning me, at any rate, though I have agonised over it, as I now agonise over poor George, for whose death no other human being has agonised. What can we do? Headstones and wreaths and memorials and speeches and the Cenotaph—no, no; it has got to be something in us. Somehow we must atone to the dead—the dead, murdered, violently-dead soldiers. The reproach is not from them, but in ourselves. Most of us don’t know it, but it is there, and poisons us. It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless—us, the war generation, and the new generation too. The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides. Somehow we must atone, somehow we must free ourselves from the curse—the blood-guiltiness. We must find—where? how?—the greater Pallas who will absolve us on some Acropolis of Justice. But meanwhile the dead poison us and those who come after us.

Oh, also, in case you pick up the book, this is one book where my habit of skipping prologues really got me in trouble. The prologue is a long set up to the book and introduces all the characters. It's really essential. I only went back and read it after I went looking for the introduction. I got interested in reading more of Aldington's novels after this (apparently he was a modernist poet, the husband of H.D. and a wrote a novella that's a long send-up of T.S. Eliot) but this book of his is the only one that's still in print! It was reissued by Penguin Classics.

I found the book because I have a terrible habit of just browsing the Penguin Classics on Amazon and impulse-buying the books that are currently selling for $5.99 or less (the prices of Penguin Classics tends to vary somewhat randomly, going from 4.99 all the way up to fifteen or even twenty dollars sometimes, though the latter is usually only for very long books that've been translated from other languages).

I am enjoying it a lot. You want to know my unpopular opinion about novels? They're fun to read, and they can compete with any other form of entertainment, up to and including video games. I know nobody wants to hear it, but there it is.

Books show people at their best; Twitter at their worst

I've gone off the socials lately. I got really sad for a few days and was like, the socials are just making me unhappy. Not because of envy: mostly because of how dumb and transphobic everyone is. The number of people who are overtly transphobic in my end of the literary world is just depressing. It's like you either like old books or think trans women are women; you have to choose. Old books or trans women. I obviously can find lots of literary people who think TW are W (TWaW will be my abbreviation from now on), but they mostly don't like old books, so while I feel affirmed by them and count many of them as my friends, there's not as much point interacting with them as literary people, because our literary interests don't necessarily align.

Anyway that's why I'm not on Twitter. Facebook is much, much better, but I'm just not used to being on it as much. I used to facebook friend people as soon as I met them, to really lock in the friendship, but I got out of the habit.

Now that I'm not on the socials, when I think of something to say about something, I have to hunt down someone who actually knows about that thing, and then text it to them (or just not say the thing at all). My life is very hard

I'm still reading Kagero Nikki--Diary of a Mayfly--a book by a nameless woman known only to history as Mitsishune's mother.1 There's a persistent strand in literary criticism that's about the invention of the self. I've never really understood the concept, but I guess the idea is that with the rise of capitalism, people felt more mechanized and more deracinated from their communities--at the same time, they were provided with a large number of ways to individualize themselves. Thus, literature became obsessed with discovering the authentic self.

The implication is that somehow people in prior times weren't self-reflective and didn't conceptualize themselves as individual actors. Seems a bit iffy to me. Mitsishune's mother seems to have a healthy sense of self. She is very, very sad, because her husband ignores her. The purpose of her life is to serve as consort to this very important man--and she's beautiful and really good at poetry--but he just doesn't seem to come around very often.

In the part I just finished, Mitsishune's mother retreated to the mountains, threatening to become a nun, but her husband and son force her to come home because it looks bad for their wife and mother to abandon their household. She comes back, but she's changed--she doesn't care as much about her husband. She concocts a scheme to adopt his illegitimate daughter and displace some of her energies that way. Somehow her time in the mountains has made her a bit otherworldly, and her husband remains suspicious--he suspects her of continuing to pray and do religious stuff.

Reading the book, it's unbelievable that it was begun in 972 AD. The people seem so real and present. And I was thinking of everything I know about 972. It was a very active time in world history. The Byzantine empire was at a local peak, having incorporated Armenia. The Song dynasty is about to unite China. Central Asia is at the peak of its influence: the Samanid empire is at its height, and the cities of modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are probably the richest and most culturally vibrant places in the world; Ferdowsi is composing the Shah Nameh. Avicenna is about to be born. Most of our surviving Anglo Saxon manuscripts are being written or are about to be written in England. Otto II is dreaming of re-founding the Roman Empire. Vikings are establishing a state in Ukraine that will someday become Russia. The toltecs dominated the Mexican highlands. The Mississippi culture was developing: in a few years they would begin to create the largest precolumbian America. Just thinking of all these people, one wonders what it would've been like if they could've spoken. This woman, Mitsishune's mother, was clearly capable of such feeling and was drawn to contemplation and to the higher world. What would've happened if she could've been at the court of John Tzimmiskes? Or gone to Bukhara?

Well, who knows--but that's exactly the situation we are in today, and yet people seem so defeated by these possibilities. I think though that we can see the best of people or their worst. Twitter is people at their worst. Yeah they might like old books, but they don't talk about the books, they just talk about how much they don't believe TWaW.

Whereas in books (and, to a lesser extent, essays), we see people at their best. Yeah Mitsishune's mother was a bit of a whiner: her life was better than 99 percent of people alive in 972, but she was also a sensitive soul and a great poet, and she made something beautiful.

It's exciting! I can read a book written in Japan in 972--that's something most people in 972 couldn't do. Now does it mean anything? Will it change the price of butter? No! But it's an incredible aesthetic experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

  1. The translation I'm reading, which is AFAIK the only easily available translation, is available for free at this address! Go, go read it, go read it and see. The explanatory notes are also really good, although it's a bit awkward that they come before the page to which they refer, instead of after it. Oh wait, I see now there's another translation by Edward Seidensticker. He's a really good translator, and he did, IMHO, the best translation of Genji. Now I don't know what to pick. It's annoying that he translated the title so differently, or I'd have read his. This is something that happens quite frequently with East Asian literature: people use such different titles that you literally can't tell if a book has actually been translated or not. But Sonja Arntzen's translation (the one I've been reading) is quite good! 

“Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.”

Been having a lot of self improvement energy lately. This happens to me periodically. I get amped, make a lot of plans, develop new systems and new ways of being, and oftentimes see really good results. I mean, I lost a lot of weight and kept most of it off for almost ten years now. Another time, I started waking up in the morning, even on weekends, and I've kept that up for going on 12 years now.

But oftentimes the improvements don't stick. I intended to keep losing weight and to become thin and muscular and toned. Never happened (in part because I developed knee pain due to exercising). I sometimes go gangbusters with new diets, and they always involve giving up or reducing sweets, and eventually my fervor slackens.

Thus, even at the height of my self-improvement projects, when I'm swimming in energy and anticipation, there's always the fear, "Is this the moment that I give up? Is this the moment when it becomes too hard?"

But that's part of life. I used to log everything I wrote and everything I did. For four years I wrote every single day, even if it was only fifty words. For a year, I put up a blog post every single day. I used to think, this is it, I've found it--I just need to make sure that every single day I do the things I'm supposed to, and that'll be the ticket to a good life. But eventually it started to seem silly and counterproductive and I stopped. My writing productivity didn't go down, but my blogging productivity did (or maybe I should say 'newslettering productivity' since blogs are passe but newsletters are cool?) and the traffic on this site has never recovered.

The other day I was using the 'random book' feature on my Calibre content server (the same one that served up that Otto Skorzeny memoir I blogged about yesterday) and it served up Donald Keene's <a href="Amazon.com: Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: European): 9780802150585: Keene, Donald: Books">Anthology of Japanese Literature from earliest era to the mid-19th Century. I've read a fair amount of ancient and Heian (10th-11th century) Japanese literature and a fair amount of contemporary Japanese literature, but didn't know much about the period in between, so I spent some time browsing through the book. I love anthologies like this, just because they alert me to new possibilities. At the same time, I thought, 'Shouldn't I actually be reading this book, instead of just skimming it?" And the answer is...maybe? But on the other hand, all I really wanted to know about was the development of Japanese prose. I certainly learned a lot about the intervening eras. After the Heian era, prose tended to either be historical romances (like the Tale of Heike) or short, often fantastical, stories, like the Bamboo-Cutter's Tale. Then in the 17th and 18th century, we see a resurgence of things that are closer to Genji--more focused on day-to-day life and realistic concerns. It was pretty fascinating! Anyway, while reading the book, I came across a few extracts from a 14th century manual called Essays in Idleness. According to this fellow, once you're past forty, you might as well bite the dust:

Truly the beauty of life is its uncertainty. Of all living things, none lives so long as man. Consider how the ephemera awaits the fall of evening, and the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. Even a year of life lived peacefully seems long and happy beyond compare; but for such as never weary of this world and are loath to die, a thousand years would pass away like the dream of a single night.

What shall it avail a man to drag out till he becomes decrepit and unsightly a life which some day needs must end? Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.

After that age it is pitiful to see how, unashamed of his looks, he loves to thrust himself into the society of others and, cherishing his offspring in the evening of his days, craves to live on and on that he may watch them grow and prosper. So he continues, his heart set on nought but worldliness, and hardening to the pity of things.

Japanese literature is truly special. No other literature impresses us so forcefully with both the beauty and the transience of life. Other literatures expound on the vanity of earthly things and a few other literatures manage to celebrate earthly things, but virtually every work of Japanese literature contains beautiful descriptions and hints of great sadness.

Anyway, I read this passage and was like, wow, at thirty-seven I might as well already be dead! Not one hundred percent sure how I weigh that against my fervor for self-improvement, but I do find it beautiful somehow that at thirty-seven I know that all my plans will eventually fail, and that I'll experience sorrow and failure again, and that in a year or two years or five years I'll once more be looking for new productivity systems and new ways of occupying myself and minimizing distraction. It's not that everything is futile, it's just nothing is permanent. It's like my bedside table. I cleaned it a few months ago, and then it got dirty again, and yesterday as I was cleaning it, I thought, "Wow, I just have to keep doing this. Constantly, every day or every week. There is no avoiding it. There is no system that'll allow me to escape the necessity of just continually tidying up my bedside table."

Perhaps I should've learned that long before--thirty-seven does seem an advanced age to realize one needs to continually tidy up--but it's also possible that it's a lesson I've learned and forgotten many times already in my life. Perhaps if I looked back in my blog, I'd find myself writing a dozen or two dozen times, "I realized that I need to keep tidying my bedside table." The thought is horrifying--one wants to make progress, not to be trapped in continual cycles--but not wanting to be trapped in a cycle isn't enough to change the reality, which is that things grow and fade. Nor can one embrace the idea of renewal either, because it's precisely renewal only comes from our struggle against fading away. In some proximate way, one can work within cycles--for instance by refusing to maintain habits and positions that no longer serve--but ultimately we're doomed to struggle.

Gone full productivity nerd, also a review of Hitler’s Commando

Hello friends, I've gone full productivity nerd. It's a bit of a problem! Around the same time I started doing nerdy things like installing Typora, switching to windows, and cataloguing all my books, I also installed a note taking system called obsidian. Like Typora, obsidian is markdown based, which means you're more "future-proof" than when you use a proprietary format like apple notes. You can just read the notes with your bare eye. Markdown also allows you to do all the formatting without your fingers ever leaving the keyboard. Yea it's really cool (for nerds).

Anyway it started innocently enough when I started looking into the world of obsidian plug-ins, which include numerous little apps and tricks to optimize and customize your obsidian experience.

Then I got really into the idea of the daily note. See every day you have a note. You put observations and scraps of writing into the day's note. Then you put in links to other notes where you collate that information. You have another page that scrapes information from all your daily notes and aggregates all the tasks you've set yourself. It is madness.

And now we've gotten to the point where I am writing this blog post inside my daily note. I figure that I can do a lot of my random writing inside the daily note and then whenever something gets big enough, I can put it into its own note. It's a productivity system, hence me being a nerd.

However because I am a wise productivity nerd, I know that the end is really the system itself. If you want to produce something, you usually just sit down and produce it. Creating a lot of scaffolding just creates extra work and creates an impediment to doing the actual thing you need to do.

But the extra work / impediment are fun in themselves and that is why we do them. And so it goes.

I've often wanted to have a daily journal where I keep a record of happenings in my life. But I usually run into two problems:

  1. nothing interesting ever happens to me; and
  2. if something interesting does happen, I bore myself trying to write it

I've reluctantly come to realize that most of my emotional life is completely mental. It doesn't take place in the real world. There are no events, no characters, no places. It's all essentially a day-dreaming (and a very boring sort of daydreaming at that, since I'm an adult and don't really let myself cut loose)

For instance I've been listening to The History of England's William the Marshal podcast, which is all about this influential courtier during the reigns of Henry I and King Richard and King John, and I just thought, you know, life then seems pretty exciting. It's like a social life, with swords. You just sit around castles, arguing about what to do next, and sometimes you have to fight. It's like I heard in a recent article: "the only way to make sex interesting again would be to punish it by death". Being a medieval knight is a lot like that: it's like a modern social life, but the penalty for annoying someone is they kill you (or impoverish or imprison you).

I've always been led to believe that fiction is about concrete details: sights, places, hurts in tummies, tears in eyes, biting winds, smelly farts, and, most importantly, the specific names of whatever flowers you might happen to come across (what is a jacaranda? What is a bougainvilea? I have no idea!)

But none of those things really create a genuine emotional response in me or, I think, in most readers. So what is to be done? I guess the only solution is to pay close attention to what actually provokes emotions, even if that thing seems recondite or illusory.

In other nerd news, I've been experimenting with using the 'content server' function of calibre, the software I use to organize my ebooks and digital comics. This lets me access my ebooks anywhere in the world just through the browser.

I have a lot of eccentric ebooks because at some point I got very into daily deal newsletters--I eventually weaned myself from the habit but not before accumulating about a thousand ebooks thatre pretty far outside what I'd normally buy.

In my calibre content server, there's a "random book" function, and the other day this tossed up a book called Hitler's Commando--the memoir of a Nazi SS officer named Otto Skorzeny. This is a name that'll probably be meaningless to most people, but when I was a kid I really liked those Harry Turtledove [alternate history novels][] where aliens invade in the middle of WWII and the Axis and Allies have to join forces to beat them. And in these books Otto Skorzeny is one of the main characters.

In actual life, he essentially invented the German special forces, and he was personally responsible for two of Germany's most notorious exploits: the 1943 rescue of Mussolino after he was arrested by the King of Italy; and the 1944 capture of Hungarian regent Admiral Horthy when he was on the verge of abandoning the Axis.

I decided to give the book a try and found it engaging. It reminded me of this quote from another book I've been reading, Nietzsche's Gay Science:

I prefer to understand the rare human beings of an age as suddenly appearing, late ghosts of past cultures and their powers: as atavisms of a people and its mores – that way one can really understand something about them! They now seem strange, rare, extraordinary; and whoever feels these powers in himself must nurse, defend, honor, and cultivate them against another world that resists them: and so he becomes either a great human being or a mad and eccentric one, unless he perishes too soon. Formerly, these same qualities were common and therefore considered ordinary: they weren’t distinguishing. They were perhaps demanded, presupposed; it was impossible to become great through them, if only because there was also no danger of becoming mad and lonely through them.

Skorzeny is certainly one of the human beings of an age. He is a meticulous planner, but he also takes outrageous risks. His Mussolini operation is only possible because he counts on the Italian troops to be too surprised to fire back when his gliders land at the remote mountain hotel.

His voice in the memoir is brisk. His life before and after the war are given no shrift. He focuses on what's of interest to his audience. Mussolini, Hitler, Kaltenbrenner, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and a host of other war criminals stumble into and out of his narrative, but they're always startling when they appear, because the prime aim of the memoir is always the details of his military operations.

He doesn't acknowledge Nazi war crimes in the slightest. Later on he professes to be horrified when Germany is accused of executing American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge: German honor would never allow such a thing!

Particularly galling is the Hungarian operation. Horthy, although a fascist, had resisted the deportation of Hungary's half million Jewish people. Once he was out of power, the Nazi puppet government viewed deporting these people to concentration camps as their first priority. The main crime for which Eichmann was tried and convicted was his role in organizing this immense operation. Without Skorzeny's operation, those people very likely would have survived the war and likely would've constituted the largest surviving population of European Jewish people. It really is that close. If Horthy had managed to retain control of Hungary, half a million people would've survived the Holocaust instead of being gassed in Auschwitz. Not a word of this is mentioned in the book.

Skorzeny genuinely doesn't care. Later on, he's perplexed that the Allies insist that Germany and Austria separate again. He says that the future of Europe lies in dismantling national borders, not creating them. He doesn't understand that nobody trusts his people.

One gathers that if the Nazis had won, he wouldn't have felt anything but pride. To me, he represents the average German in WWII--perhaps he didn't actively commit war crimes, but he certainly wasn't against them. (Not mentioned in the memoir, which only covers his war years, is that later in life Skorzeny allegedly worked for Mossad and killed German-born Egyptian rocket scientists on their behalf.)

However was he really that different from William the Marshal? The latter also earned a reputation for feats of outstanding courage and for his outstanding loyalty to the kings that he served. The latter was also essentially a henchman to a succession of powerful men. As in the Nietzsche quote, Skorzeny just seems like a modern version of a very ancient type.

Finally, I really don't want to move to substack, both because I don't love the interface and because the platform caters to transphobes, so I'm tryna do a half blog / half newsletter deal. That means I'm gonna be adding the following annoying subscription widget to all my posts. Enter your address and you'll be emailed all my posts! This seems like an absurd thing for anyone to want (why would a person want more emails?), but I guess with the demise of RSS readers, this is how people read these days!

Spent my India trip reading Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian

Hey friends, I went to India and then had various weather-related childcare interruptions that've meant I haven't done as much work as I wanted to (and absolutely no posting). I also haven't read that much fiction either (compared to my usual). At some point I wanted to just read a long, complicated classic novel. After reading the recent LRB review of the new translation of The Betrothed (which I think that I liked to in a previous post), I started to feel nostalgic for Manzoni's masterpiece, which I read more than four years ago during a trip to New York. I thought, ahh, perfect, I should read something like that. So I was like, surely there are other long, sprawling 19th century Italian novels I can read.

And in fact there is one other famous one, Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian.1 One thing that Tim Park's review of The Betrothed noted is that Manzoni's novel is an outlier in its overt embrace of Catholicism. Most Italian literature is pretty secular and is often suspicious of the Church. Manzoni's novel, in bucking that trend, probably made itself more attractive to various state and church institutions that wanted to embrace an Italian national identity without being irreligious.

Confessions of an Italian is nothing like The Betrothed. It's a very long historical novel, but it's all told in the first person, as the memoirs of Carlo Altoviti, a minor member of a minor noble family from the Venetian mainland. He's born in the 1750s or 60s, has a long and turbulent political career, and eventually dies around 1855. The author was a relatively young man when he wrote the book (twenty-six, I think), and it's a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. It's actually a style of novel, I find, when someone from a rural area or a marginalized group manages at a young age to draw on the stories they grew up with--on the tales of housekeepers, retainers, grandparents, and on village folklore and scandals--to create something that seems like the work of someone nearing the end of their life.

The book is ostensibly about the creation of an Italian identity (Nievo himself took part in the Risorgimento, but the book was written before the final unification), but the first third of the book is a very long description of the life in Castle Fratta and the surrounding countryside. Carlino is dumped on the doorstep of the castle while still a baby--his mother dies in childbirth and his father is an adventurer in foreign lands. He's raised by his aunt and uncle in a rather disinterested fashion, and he spends most of his time in the company of a superannuated retainer of the family (whose name I unfortunately forget) and various other characters who hang around the castle.

The book is dominated by his long, passionate relationship with La Pisana, the younger daughter of his aunt (and hence of somewhat higher social status than himself). But, even more than wealth or social differences, they're kept apart by La Pisana's fiery and somewhat perverse temperament. She's flirtatious with many boys and men, she sometimes seems to despise the narrator, and sometimes she herself seems frustrated by her own inability to keep to one path in life. Whenever circumstances force her into positions of great responsibility, whether its caring for her sick husband or caring for a blinded Carlino as they eke out a living in exile, she seems totally self-abnegating and unselfish, and yet whenever she's left to her own devices, she becomes perverse, demanding and helpless. She's undoubtedly the most interesting character in the book.

If I'm being honest, I can't imagine any of my readers getting through the first third of this book. Nor can I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone who's not read The Betrothed. The latter is a much faster-paced novel, despite its length, and more likely to hold your interest.

And yet, as the novel progressed, and we started seeing scenes of war, revolution, and social decay, I grew more impressed with the first third. It's really in that third that any of the novel's literary merit lies. Firstly, in its honest description of a boy who really doesn't care for politics or public life or glory--he just wants the love of this girl. Later, when we see this man grown into positions of high authority, it's funny to think about the boy, and how different he was in his concerns, if not in his voice and character. It's a remarkable portrait of someone growing up and aging. In fact, the effects of time on the whole cast are staggering and well-wrought. In general, as people age, they either become the opposite of themselves or they become a caricature of themselves. In exactly the same way, the characters choose their paths and commit to them--so the young girl who's devoted to her grandmother becomes, as an adult, passionately devoted to God, and the young man who's a quick wit and desirous of glory becomes, as an old man, corrupt and venal and without any principles. Every change makes perfect sense, and yet when you look back over the novel, it seems it would've been impossible to predict where everyone ended up.

Secondly, I realized as the novel progressed that the first third is portraying a way of life that, in the author's lifetime, had already vanished. For him to describe life in the 1760s is exactly the same as for me to describe life in a 1950s Levittown. This whole web of connections, with self-governing nobility, and a Venice that held a distant but jealous grip on local affairs, and a proliferation of castles and blood feuds and a rural tenantry who owed their livelihood to local magnates--all of that will be swept away by the halfway point of the novel. The erasure of that rural life is the process of Risorgimento. There is no separating the two. The creation of an Italian national identity required the loss of regional identities and of the freedom and isolation that made those identities possible.

In reading the book I kept thinking back to another I read recently, Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals, which is about the rise of ethnic nationalism as an explicit idea and ideal. Throughout, this book openly advocates for Italian nationalism. There's an explicit disgust at how Italy has fallen from its twin peaks, during the Roman Republic and during the height of the Italian Renaissance, and a desire to come together and build something new and equally great. I can see how exciting that idea would've been at the time. In fact, it's hard to see what else (besides communism) could provide the same meaning that nationalism did. But nowadays the novel carries a quiet foreboding that I'm sure it didn't when it was originally published.

On a side note, the book was only published after Nievo's death (he died at age thirty in a shipwreck), and it wasn't a big success upon publication. Its reputation took some time to grow.

All in all, as I come upon the final chapters of the book, I have to say that I found it thoroughly satisfying. Gave me exactly what I wanted. And though I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to others (after all, I'm not sure anyone else wants to spend a three weeks of their time reading the second-best 19th century Italian historical novel), it's still one that's worth thinking about picking up someday!

  1. The edition I read was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Frederika Randall. As far as I know, this is the only unabridged English translation. 

The Good Fight, Emily The Criminal, Natalia Ginzberg, and Alessandro Manzoni

Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg - Nowadays when I'm looking for something to read, I just look at the New Directions back catalogue. They're a superb small press that brings over tons of European writers. I love New Directions' tastes. They're aesthetes. They prefer writers who are known as stylists or formal innovators. Their books tend to be short and very compressed. This 'novel' clocks in at, I believe, under a 100 pages in the print version (though I read it as an ebook). Ginzburg is a very famous Italian writer, and she has a devoted following in the US amongst the type of people who read New Directions books. This is the first of hers that I've completed (I was assigned one in my MFA, but I didn't do the reading that month.) This one begins with a wife killing her husband, and then the wife briefly retells the story of their four year marriage. At first I was like, this wife is very flat, there's not much to her. But that's the essence of the book. The wife has a dry heart: she's a woman waiting for a man to give her life meaning. Even though she doesn't love her husband, the idea that he loves her is sustaining. She's happy to finally be wanted. And when she discovers, early in the book, that his love isn't as strong as she imagined, it's a terrible, gnawing truth that eats away at her. The murder at the end is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. It's entirely because this woman really doesn't have anything of her own, she has no self to fall back upon.

The Good Fight - I wouldn't exactly say that The Good Wife or The Good Fight are underrated. Both have been critically acclaimed and did well for themselves. But they're not rated as highly as they should be. These are some of the best shows of the last decade. The Good Fight did itself a lot of favors by focusing on Diane Lockhart and on her partners in a Black law firm (yes, it's absurd that Christine Baranski has joined a Black law firm) as Trump comes into power. The show leans into the increasing lawlessness of our times (amongst other things, the Chicago PD's secret prison makes several appearances). I finally got around to watching the last season, which was great, although it lacked some of the wild energy of the previous two seasons. Was just sad to see it end! Oh, one area where the show shined was in the genuine rapport between Diane and her partners. As opposed to the constant conniving and back-biting in The Good Wife, the partners in The Good Fight are largely teammates. Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald (who joined the cast in the second season) are really great whenever they share a scene (and even better in the season four ARC where they join a secret all-woman revolutionary cadre).

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell Tales (Disney Plus)- I have absolutely no idea why I chose to watch this film. I saw a clip on the internet of the scene where the female lead, Kaya Scodelario, banters with Johnny Depp while they're both facing execution. It looked fun, so I watched it. The movie reminded me of the persistently surprising fact that these Pirates movies are actually good. They've got some solid world-building, with very charming performances, even from minor characters. This movie was much stronger in the first half, when the various characters are knocking around trying to figure out what the story is going to be. Once they get together and start doing action, you realize that there's no real character arc for any of them, and it gets a little stale.

Emily The Criminal (Netflix)- I love crime films. I went through one heist film stage where I just watched a ton of heist movies. This falls squarely into the lo-fi, small-scale criminal genre (a la Hustle and Flow or Uncut Gems). Just a regular, slightly-shady person getting sucked in deeper and deeper. The problem with movies and TV shows of this type is that the characters usually have some character flaw (a temper, impulsiveness, drug abuse), but they rarely have any off-setting competence. Like if you watch Weeds or Breaking Bad it's impossible to escape the notion sometimes these people just aren't very good at being criminals and maybe they are a bit overly entitled.

This movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as a twentysomething art school grad with $70,000 of credit card debt, skirts that line. Plaza at times seems to be the loose cannon, the person who gets too greedy and can't control herself and ruins a good thing. All of her problems in the credit card fraud business seem to be self-created: a result of her breaking the rules. But in the end the movie turns that into a strength, and it complicates its own world-building and its own view of criminality. Highly recommend. Plus, she has a lot of chemistry with the male lead, played by Theo Rossi, who inducts her into the life of crime. He's just such a sweet guy, from the first moment he's onscreen you just want to kiss him and bring him home to mama. Also Aubrey Plaza is very attractive and for some reason doesn't wear a bra for most of the movie.

"Alessandro Manzoni" in London Review of Books -- I don't have too much to say about it, but this article, if anything, undersells how wonderful The Betrothed is.1 It's just a genuinely good time, akin to War and Peace or Anna Karenina or David Copperfield. I came upon the book completely by accident, and it was fantastic to have this big, wonderful 19th century novel to get lost in. I really like the second half, where the plague hits. This article is written by Tim Parks, who's a great fiction writer and translator in his own right. He translated Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, which I also read recently and adored.

  1. I first wrote about The Betrothed way back in 2016

Reviews of books by Dag Solstad, Julien Benda, and Mary Wollstonecraft

I have read ALOT of books recently, and I wanted to get back into doing that thing where I write capsule book reviews, so let's start:

Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad - The only bad thing about this Norwegian novel is its uninspired title, which I assume comes from its place in the author's ouevre. Otherwise it's a beautifully told story about a man who's four years divorced from his second wife, living in a small city, working as the treasurer of that city, and wondering how he ended up in this place, with this job, these friends, and this life. He feels so put-out by the randomness, feels so much as if this life has lived him, and he has not made any choices. Beautiful character portraits, particularly of his second wife and of the son from his first marriage. Dag Solstad has a cold, calculating voice that at times seems distant from his characters, but is actually very close to them and very deeply felt. Absolutely bonkers ending: won't spoil it, but it's so strange. Here's a quote:

But no sooner had the Society’s members left the house than he blew his top, allowing all his jealousy to emerge. Turid Lammers thought so anyway. In reality it was nothing but a pretence on his part. He did it for her sake.

he did not dare entertain the thought that Turid might display all of her feminine charm vis-à-vis the evening’s chosen member of the Society without her partner becoming beside himself with jealousy. He could not bear the thought of causing her so much pain

He knew what he was doing. He had made up his mind to live with Turid Lammers at Kongsberg. As the Kongsberg town treasurer. In his leisure time he was involved in amateur theater. His love for her was so great that he could have gone mad out of jealousy. Had he not renounced everything in order to cultivate the temptation in all its intensity, for what was left, after all, except this intensity? But he was in the know. He knew what he was doing. He fully realized that, after living with Turid for seven years, his chief contribution to preserving their relationship consisted in these outbursts of fake jealousy. He had seen through her. He had no illusions about her.

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad- Got really into old Dag and read one of his other books, about a high school teacher who, after twenty-five years, has a breakdown while trying to explicate Ibsen's play The Wild Duck to his uncaring class. Another beautiful book--it's roughly divided into third. The first is at the high school. The second is him reminiscing about his college friend, a genius philosopher who became a New York ad-man, and the last third about his increasing fury at the lack of intellect in his life, and at how the world seemingly has no use for his mind. Definitely white male rage, but so subtle and well-drawn. Here's a little quote that I loved:

There they sat with their soft, puppyish, youthful faces, their—as they thought—horrible pimples, and with a confused and inadequate inner life filled as likely as not with the most soapy daydreams, actually feeling offended because they were bored, and he was the one they were offended by because it was he, the teacher, who was boring them.

Treason of the Intellectuals by Julien Benda- The most important thing to realize about this book is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, a whole wave of intellectuals, largely in sociology and history and other social sciences, started developing the idea that nations and civilizations were real things, with real durable characteristics. Julien Benda did not like this! He thought it was a betrayal of everything an intellectual (what he calls a 'clerk') ought to stand for. He thought that a clerk ought to champion universality and the idea that there was a commonality to all men. To him, the idea of clerks using their knowledge to advance narrow, political aims--the aims of nations--was abhorrent. As he put it, there've always been kings and statesmen who advanced the cause of states and who preached war and conflict. And there've always been priests and scholars who have opposed them. Thus, "For two thousand years, mankind did evil, but it honored the good." In his view, the modern crop of clerk had demolished this history, by using the tools of an clerk to do evil. An incredibly powerful polemic.

From all this it follows that the “clerk” is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the “clerk” is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind

Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft - I'm gonna be frank, I didn't really love it. Reading the book, I realized it only made sense in the context of a world where every woman capable of reading this book would probably have hired help to do her domestic labor. Upper-class women were freed from the necessity of taking care of (or even nursing) their own children, but they weren't allowed to do anything else. As such a cult of beauty and sentimentality had grown up: women's only role was to be pleasing to men. And it's this idea that women are meant to be decorous and pleasing--purely ornamental--that Wollstonecraft inveighs against. But in the modern world, there's an easy response to her critiques. One could easily say, "Women aren't purposeless; women are supposed to care for the domestic sphere." That's not something for which Wollstonecraft has an easy response. Indeed, in her rants against seeking love, against flirtation, against fancy dress and ornament, and against reading novels, she often ends up sounding like a modern conservative. Which she wasn't, obviously (she herself had a child out of wedlock and was deeply sentimental in her personal life). The book just seemed very rooted in its own time and place. At times it almost seemed like a personal argument she was having with Rousseau (a writer who deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, but who obviously deeply offended her with his extreme, even for the time, misogyny). The Benda book, described above, actually felt similarly rooted in a given time and place, but it was much shorter, and it provided a much clearer description of the problem.

Articles I liked: Paris Review interviews of Philip Larkin, Dag Solstad, Sam Lipsyte; the NYRB reconsiders V.S. Naipaul, and others

I also have a strong desire to become one of those people who links to articles, so that's what I'm gonna do.

"The Trouble With Money" in London Review of Books - The economics I learned in college wasn't very self-reflective, on a philosophical level. It never worried about the nature of money or what it represented. Money was merely a medium of exchange: a thousand dollars equals a thousand dollars worth of butter equals a thousand dollars worth of guns. They are the same thing. But a whole class of late 19th and early 20th century economists devoted their time to grappling with the concept of money. What did it mean? How did it function? And not just practically, but psychologically as well. Loved this article on John Maynard Keynes, who wrote about the death-grip money has on our psyches, and the way that after a certain point, saving can become a mania that interferes with the production of goods and services.

"Art of Fiction No. 230: Dag Solstad" in The Paris Review - At various times in my life I've had the ambition to read all the Paris Review interviews. But I inevitably realize that if I haven't read and enjoyed the author, then I don't really care about what they have to say. I really liked Solstad's interview, just as I really like his novels! He seems to have his head on his shoulders--very practical writer, who seems to enjoy his work. I was however amused by his 3-1-3 schedule, where after every third day of writing, he gets blind drunk for one full day. LOL.

"Art of Poetry No. 30: Philip Larkin" by The Paris Review - Larkin is one of the few poets that I truly love. I deeply enjoyed this mildly grumpy interview of his, where he describes his solitary life, how he hasn't read poetry in years, how his only encounters with Auden and Eliot were awkward and terrifying, and how he basically doesn't know anything of life outside Hull, where he's lived for the last twenty-five years. What a genius he was.

"Art of Fiction No. 242: Sam Lipsyte" in The Paris Review - Another deeply likeable interview. Just enjoyed playing around in his mind, same as I enjoy his fiction! No great revelations. I just like the guy!

"2022 was not the year of consilience" by Erik Hoel - I subscribe to Erik's substack. He's both a researcher into consciousness and a novelist. Which is to say, he's researching consciousness from the inside and out. In this post he talks about attempting to bridge the science / art divide, and how most of the resistance to that idea seems to come from artists. I thought he was smart in talking about the one thing scientists can do to maybe help heal that divide, which is not be reductive about art. Even if you can explain some things about art using science, there's still a phenomonological level to it that'll never be directly accessible to science.

"Naipaul's Unreal Africa" in The New York Review of Books - I really like Naipaul's work. I've read a lot of it. His best and most humane books are his early ones, set in Trinidad, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas. His later books, especially those set in Africa, are interesting and evocative, but extremely cruel. He was a cruel man, and he was undeniably racist. This author reexamines the legacy of his Booker-nominated A Bend in the River, and the ways its racism would be received if published today, instead of in 1979.

"A New King for the Congo" in The New York Review of Books - This essay, written by Naipaul and published in the NYRB in the 70s, is an example of the way he wrote about Africa (it's also discussed in the article above)

Spotlight on: anthologies of 1950s romance comics

In the early days of my blog, I mostly wrote about things that interested very few people, like Tolstoy, Richard Yates, my own writing statistics, etc. But nowadays I've reached the point where if I'm going to write at all, I only feel compelled to write about things that are of interest to absolutely nobody.

Case in point, I've recently become very interested in romance comics. These are Western comics, usually published between about 1948 and 1972 with contemporary romantic plots. They were written by the usual comics regulars--the same guys and same companies that did crime / horror / superhero comics--but they were intended for an audience of women and girls. At one point they were extremely popular, and they're now mostly for the extremely different sexual and romantic politics they showcase.

Visually, they're most well-known through pop art satirization, as in this well-known Roy Lichtenstein image:

I first got into romance comics through an NYRB sale: curator Dan Nadel had put together a collection of Ogden Whitney's romance comics, called Return To Romance. I immediately found the collection captivating. The stories were really odd. The pacing was always a bit off, a little like a Richard Yates short story. They came to unexpected climaxes and then lingered. Heroes turned out to be villains and vice versa. The politics were old-fashioned of course, but more striking was the dreamy, time-free quality of the narration.

Unfortunately I misplaced my copy of Return to Romance, so can't show you some shots, but I was utterly gripped, and I immediately was like...must find more romance comics.

But what I found was most compilations of romance comics hadn't exercised the taste that Dan Nadel had. See, there's two ways of compiling a reprint anthology. The first is to select representative samples of the genre; and the second is to select striking or unusually good examples of the genre. The first is the academic or archivist's path; the second is that of the real fan. Nadel had found a romance comic artist he thought was unusually good and reprinted him, but some of the other notable compilations, in particular Romance Without Tears and Agonizing Love, didn't seem to have exercised the same selectivity.

I found the books disappointing and trite. A lot of times the stories felt extremely by-the-numbers and too often they relied on misdirection (like a story about a girl who's seeing another guy while she waits for her fiance to come home from the war, and her friends all gossip about her, but it turns out she's just learning to drive! The guy is just her driving instructor!) Or any story where it's like, a girl really likes a guy, but he seems to like someone else, but really he likes her, and there's nothing more to it. Also, both volumes were reprinted with glossy pages (romance comics were originally matte paper) and the images just didn't seem right.

Recently, however, while I was shelving and organizing my library, I revisited the other collections I'd found and some of them were actually unusually good! So since I didn't want anyone else to waste their time and money, I decided to write this blog on the off chance someone in ten years searches for "best romance comics anthology or compilation."

The Winners

The best compilation I found, besides the Ogden Whitney one, was one called Marvel Romance, which featured Stan Lee and Jim Steranko and John Romita Sr. and a bunch of the other usual Marvel guys, writing romance comics! What distinguishes these from any other collection is that all the comics are from the sixties and early 70s, so the sexual politics are liberated, the skirts are shorter, and everyone speaks in groovy, far-out slang. They're a ton of fun!

This is about a high school kid who's in love with her teacher.

This comic is from a story about a go-go party girl who gives up the love of her life!

The other compilation was one of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's work over the course of about ten years on a comic called Young Romance that was one of America's best-selling comics. At one point, it was selling a million copies an issue, and it reputedly started the romance comics trend. There are some good ones here too, often featuring women who make mistakes, like the girl who sets out to steal another girl's fiance. My favorite was the girl who's choosing between two brothers, but her dad has a third candidate in mind (the foreman of his lumber mill), and she's like nuhuh dad we agree on almost everything, but imma go my own way on this, and then eventually she's like DAD YOU WERE RIGHT, FOREMAN HANK IS MY FAVORITE AFTER ALL.

The Kirby and Simon compilations (there's another one called Young Romance 2 that's equally good) are also the best put together, they're printed on thick cream-colored matte paper, and they've been re-colorized and sharpened. They don't look like scans, the way most of the other compilations do.

This story is about a by-the-book numbers guy, an accountant, who's managed to find the perfect match--but he's thrown off balance by the flightly sculptress who lives next door.

It's hard to say what I like so much about the romance comics. The plots tend to blur together after awhile--ultimately the comics fell into two categories: diverting and unreadable. The unreadable ones I can't tell you about, because I skipped them. The diverting ones were the ones where there was a hint of insuperable conflict at the beginning. Often this was a difference in social status. In one case, it was because the woman was an ex-con. In other, she was married to a former gangster. In one really good Kirby / Simon story (I believe), a high school girl was in love w her 10+ year older teacher.

But I also really enjoyed the art. If you look at it too long, the faces start to seem haunting and expressionless, which may or may not be a part of the appeal, but I liked that this was a nation's dream about itself: all these brunettes with cinched-waists and wavy-haired blondes and ken dolls in swimming shorts. All these ambitious young men looking to move up while retaining their integrity. All these working women, longing for a husband. All the fast cars and soda shops, I don't know, it was an interesting visual jumble.

And the narration also has a haunting, confessional quality. Every story (almost) is framed as a 'true tale' that's merely being 'told to' the writer (who isn't credited as a writer, the story is instead written 'as told to' Stan Lee or Joe Simon or whoever). On the first page the women often face the reader and describe their conundrum. Throughout the story you hear their internal monologue, the tone of their longing, as they go through their day.

I kept thinking someone should make a TV series that takes place in the world of fifties romance comics, but of course nobody would be interested in that (not even me, perhaps!) And also it would just look like the first year of Mad Men.

My father in law is visiting. I was like, when were you born. He said, "1950". And the comics I was reading were originally published in 1950. These comics were out-dated and passe even fifty-five years ago, when he was a teen. Now they are truly relics. But they're still entertaining! Still worth one's time not just on a sociological level, but also as works of art.

On a sidenote, it's interesting that the two strongest compilations were those that were, essentially, trading on the reputations of writers better known for their superhero work. There were lots of other writers, like Ogden Whitney, who were best known for their romance comic work, and I do with someone would go through the thousands of romance comics published and find the best stories, irrespective of writer. But I have a feeling that the audience for that book would basically nobody. But maybe this forthcoming anthology of the best of British romance comics will prove to be what I'm looking for!

Honorable mention
Before I found the Kirby and the Marvel compilations, my favorite was this one from EC comics: Modern Love. The stories are good, but the paper is glossy, and I found the art style to be a bit exaggerated and not totally to my taste (example below):

This is about a woman whose aunt wants her to marry a rich guy.