Heart and soul

As we begin to grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence and robots, this allusion more than 150 years ago to an automaton and machine without feelings is striking. And, yet again, Jane cannot prevent herself confronting her interlocutor...

Of original, vigorous and expanded minds

A wonderful description of how Jane's potential to blossom intellectually and emotionally is triggered by her relationship with Mr. Rochester.  Both of them defy the conventions of their time and she, having far fewer resources to draw on both financially...

Of freedom and flight

Again, Mr. Rochester has to face the fact that the more he tries to bind Jane to him, the more he drives her away, though he has no idea to what degree.  See also 'Of frantic birds and free humans'.   'Of yourself you could come with soft flight and nestle...

Upright and unflinching

A touching and imaginative fictional description of the complexity of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603).  Orlando is a young boy of about 16 when he meets her, by then an elderly queen. I like the word 'caparisoned' to convey her always glorious power-dressing,...

No plebeians here

How noble can you get?  Most aristos trace back to some humble origin until they got a knighthood or some such for pleasing their king and master.  But Orlando's, no, they came out of the mists their coronets already in place. 'His fathers had been noble...

The vegetables of another age

Something wonderfully down to earth about this quick survey of differences between us and the Elizabethans, particularly in that last flourish of differentiated veg. 'The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate;...

 

One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.  

Source: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 29

The elegant disposal of offensive documents

Remember this next time you receive an email or other document which offends you.  Simply summon the footman and have him file it appropriately.  And be sure to protect yourself from further contamination by the deft use of a pair of tongs. I looked long...

Hell and how to avoid it

Brontë's Jane Eyre plumbs depths of emotion both in the child and woman, but there is also a certain wry humour.  Here the tiny Jane, whose small body can barely contain her strong and uncrushable spirit, responds with astounding and refreshing logic,...

Shock and reverberation

Charlotte Brontë captures the lasting impression of fear and injustice, and the emotional outrage caused by both, in a child treated with cruelty.  Here the young Jane Eyre, poor cousin and ward of a hard-hearted distant aunt, is locked up in a dark and...

Of love and kindness

Jane Eyre boils down to two powerful essential needs: to give and receive love amply, and to have the liberty to determine how you live and think, and to do both in a generous, whole-hearted way. After being alternately neglected and tormented by her...

Pleasant things

Jane the young woman is now entering a milieu where her deprived childhood is in stark contrast with her employer's wealth.  She has just emerged from a Victorian penitentiary masquerading as a charity orphanage, where even adequate quantities of...

That grand old poem called Winter

To celebrate the winter solstice, a few crisp quotations.  I loved Thoreau's description of winter as an epic in blank verse, and his words are themselves a grand old poem.  Enjoy. 'That grand old poem called Winter ... What a poem!  an epic in blank verse, enriched...

Sign of the clime

A ready way to reckon with the weather, according to an old boy Thoreau knew.  Can't really go wrong with this formula. Old John Nutting used to say, "when it is cold it is a sign it's going to be warm," and "When it's warm it's a sign it's going to be cold."   22 Jan...

The great freeze of London

Virginia Woolf's Orlando gets under the skin of different moments in a 400 year stretch of English history.  Here she zooms in on the Great Frost of 1608, prising out of the ice images from an historical account given by Thomas Dekker of a rare winter when the Thames...

A poet’s sister or a sister poet?

In Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, you sense the extent to which she supported her brother's writing. Some things she records become material for his poems. She also reads aloud to him, including his own compositions, and copies out his poems. But beyond this, she has...

Need some negus?

A hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spice, named after a Colonel Francis Negus (d. 1732), who invented it.  In Dorothy Wordsworth's journal, it seems to have been used medicinally, along with broth.  A delicious sounding toddy for a miserable winter cold. 'We also...

How to win a train ticket to Tashkent

This vast novel, full of war and suffering, also has moments of levity.  Here we have someone refusing to curtail his right to say whatever he thinks about literature, life and politics, talking and arguing his way into being given a free train ticket. 'In 1926...

In praise of senseless, eternal kindness

Another plea by Grossman for uncomplicated, unplanned and even unwitnessed kindnesses, as opposed to those commandeered by ideologies.Whatever your beliefs, may you give and receive such random acts of kindness in equal measure.'The private kindness of one individual...

Of eyes that saw too much

This is part of a detailed, detached account of what happened when people entered a gas chamber, as experienced by Sofya, a Russian doctor in Grossman's 800 page novel of the Second World War in and around Russia. I found it moving that he focuses on her eyes, which...

Captain Grekov’s eyes

This is a memorable description of Captain Grekov, commander of House 6/1 in the rubble of Stalingrad, summing up so much of the man by the look in his eyes. See also in the same book a touching account of the eyes of a woman - with much of what they had seen in the...

The kernel of human kindness

Having been caught between the colliding tectonic plates of two totalitarian systems, it is easy to see how Grossman saw history not in terms of a matched battle between good and evil, but of a juggernaut trying to mow down seedlings of kindness. Despite - or because...

Kindness maketh man

What makes us human?  Simple kindness is a key element according to Grossman.  It depends partly on how you define 'human' of course, whether to describe a particular species, or in the sense that is redolent with tenderness, vulnerability, feeling, sensitivity. 'This...

An anatomy of anguish

This graphic and heart-rending typology of despair makes me conscious of having been mercifully spared much of anything that could be likened to despair.  Count your blessings, indeed. 'Abarchuk sighed.  ‘You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in...

Love among the rubble

This refers to a love affair that burgeons in the grimness of Stalingrad, and I like how Grossman expands the spectrum to show that love can happen in the worst places, full of 'noise, stench and rubble'.  The photo by Angela Compagnone seemed the perfect backdrop for...

A thousand years of history

On the centenary of the October Revolution, I wonder how Russians today would feel about this terse statement by Grossman. 'Russia has seen many things during the one thousand years of its history. There is only one thing that Russia has not seen in one thousand years...

Communing with the cosmos

Glorious moment in this splendid, human novel: an army officer camped somewhere on the steppe enjoys a moment of embracing the magnificence of the night sky even while attending to more basic needs.  I liked the naturalness and philosophic communing with the cosmos in...

Good versus kind

The 800 pages of Grossman's splendid Life and Fate is occasionally interlarded with heartfelt asides by the author, including pleas for simple, spontaneous kindness as opposed to state-sponsored, ideologically gift-wrapped 'good' with a capital 'G'.  Sometimes he...

Like atoms of radium

A fine metaphor for dots of kindness shining through darkness; Grossman's hope for the future is largely vested in the fact that the great machinery of totalitarian brutality has failed to extinguish these random sparks of human warmth. 'Even at the most terrible...

Eighteenth century entitlement

The vivid and voluble Mrs Poyser chipping in with her endless fount of wisdom and human commentary.   I like this as an early expression of someone having a sense of entitlement, which is how I read it.  Mrs Poyser is a character I like very much, but I wouldn't want...

Love in hyperbolical peas

How to show your love for the prettiest girl in the dairy?   As a gardener, you obviously present your avowals through delicious strawberries and outstanding peas. Sadly for her later suffering, Hetty was unmoved, preferring more glamorous and glittering attentions....

Unpitying consequences

This moving and powerful novel is all about the dire consequences of flighty and initially apparently inconsequential decisions, snow-balling into terrible choices. I often wonder about the random effects of 'small' decisions.  You might decide to delay going out by...

Well-chiselled politeness

I'm all for politeness and things being well-chiselled, but this is a chilling form - impeccable yet indifferent as to whether it delivers sugar or venom. 'He always spoke in the same deliberate, well-chiselled, polite way, whether his words were sugary or venomous.'...

Hunger in the raw

This is one of the most graphic, disturbing descriptions of the effects of severe hunger I have seen, written by a man who witnessed it in extreme situations of war and death camps.  It makes a mockery of the common throw away line of 'I'm starving ...' when in fact...

Let’s begin with man

This 800 page riveting novel is in some senses one giant plea for simple, spontaneous, sincere kindness towards and between individuals.  Not as an ideology, but as a day to day modus operandi.  If you read Grossman, you will be more on your guard against ideologies,...

The three ‘S’s of happinesss

A dulcet and sibilant summary of the source of felicity.  Wishing you thrice times blessings of slumber, sunshine and sweets.  I wonder if the three things also begin with 'S' in the original Russian. One of the strengths of Grossman's massive, powerful masterpiece is...

Space for thought

I like the notion that a confined physical space need not impede vast thought.  It reminds me of an injunction I read decades ago, in which the headmaster of Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and civilization, told the then schoolboy to 'Think...

Tenderness vs severity

This encouragement to err on the side of tenderness is typical of George Eliot, who quietly, gently pleads for greater kindness and humanity in our dealings with one another.  And this plea comes from a favourite novel, Adam Bede.  Published in 1859 it evokes a period...

Gladness and despair

A finely phrased evocation of the twin elements of human experience of time, every new morning or moment heralding good or bad for somebody somewhere.  We can only work towards increasing and making the most of 'new forces' for gladness, genius and love. 'For there is...

Defining moments

It has always interested me how life can turn on a sixpence, for better and worst.  Adam Bede is one of the finest English novels, and it has a number of moments when events take a fateful turn.  Here we have Adam recalling - all his life - exactly where he was and...

Living like pigs

With all due respect to our porcine friends, I loved this line by the competent, demanding and house proud farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser, who keeps her 18th century home and dairy buildings spic and span, laying into the housemaids for their slatternly ways.  However,...

Dogs of war

How clever these creatures, able to distinguish between the sound of planes that unleash havoc and so should be hidden from, and those that simply fly over to unleash havoc elsewhere. ‘I don’t know … Take dogs, for example – they can tell different planes apart.  When...

Birds of war

The more I learn about birds, the more that 'bird brain' seems a misnomer.  Here they are in a war zone, imitating the whistle of bullets so accurately as to put experienced soldiers on the alert. ‘Once there was a terrible whistling right over our heads, but we...

Street dogs

I love dogs and the towns owned by them, always feeling reassured when you see dogs confidently, busily and independently trotting about the streets, checking that all is in order.  And this description of them as moving about 'like businessmen'! I have a theory that...

Of no human agency or purpose

Ever had that grim feeling as you drive through some urban bleakscape? Utility and ugliness both begin with 'u' but they don't need to be synonymous.  I coined the term 'beautility' to capture the meeting point of beauty and utility.  You'll see this propounded...

Wine-tasting à l’aristocrat

One of the charms of Brideshead is the free run the two young men occasionally enjoy of this vast, rambling pile, including its copious wine supply.  Left to their own devices, they decide to 'study' wine-tasting, following the book until it all becomes a blur. This...

Picking up bear habits

Aloysius must be one of the most famous bears in literature (apart from Winnie the Pooh) although Sebastian's curious relationship with him is never explained. After throwing up through Ryder's window, Sebastian sends a note saying that unless he is permitted to make...

Will to live or fear of death?

This refers to the looming death of the Brideshead patriarch, surrounded by his family. I was struck by the implication that the will to live gives strength, while the fear of death drains it. If you extend that, it might suggest that people are more motivated by...

Evidence of life?

This response by Charles Ryder to his wife's question is striking.  While change is inevitable, I am not sure it is 'evidence of life'.  The dead also change. Yet given the state of his marriage when his wife posed the question, and the about-to-bloom love with Julia,...

Maps for all comers

I wonder if such a mecca of maps exists?  A map for all seasons, all reasons.  Maps for thieves to find targets and for the police to find thieves. 'He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets.  He sold well-digging...

Maps imagined

I love maps and regularly buy them. Here you have a map inside the map-seller's mind, drawing on his knowledge of the world and its ways. If only one could buy some of these maps, such as 'journeys to hidden sources of wisdom'. 'He would close his eyes, seeing clear...

Hello for the first time and goodbye for the last

This beautiful, gentle woman provides a haven to one of the protagonists.  A father finding himself, a son finding his father, and maps and lions in between. ‘You make love as if you’re saying hello for the first time and goodbye for the last.’   Source: Russell...

Where place and time meet

Russell Hoban's is one of the most imaginative, limpid novels I have ever read.  Maps loom large in it, real and imagined.  I loved this meeting of time and place.  See you there? "‘There is only one place,’ he said, ‘that place is time, and that time is now.  There...

The root of all wisdom

This is surely the crux of Brideshead Revisited and its most arresting, limpid quotation. It comes quite early in the book and it takes until the closing pages to see what that involves. And this in a book where love is thwarted. This was my first reading of...

Glee between two leaves

Ryder's father seems to have a quiet, relentless sadism about him, positively enjoying any discomfiture he can inflict on his son.  He's awful. 'I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic...

Long range planning

When I look at old or ancient things which we still cherish, I sometimes ask what we are creating today that will endure, not just materially, but in terms of holding value for future generations. This quotation takes that question a step further; not just what are we...

The power of a name

One of the finest devices of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is the flashback from present war to past Arcadia.  When Captain Ryder finds himself billeted to Brideshead, his past rises before him like a morning mist.  Names, of people or places, can evoke powerful...

Make way for others

This made me laugh but sadly, Thoreau didn't record the response of Dr. Bartlett when his kind invitation was declined.  I wonder if there are any statues of Thoreau anywhere, because he would not have approved if so. So, make the most of your time here, and then make...

The liberating influence of a river

I like the idea of a river's motion and indefinite length as being liberating.  But I'm pondering corresponding aspects of a lake that might also be liberating: the lack of motion allowing you to float on its surface looking up at the sky? Clearly, we need an essay on...

Joining thought to thought

Thoreau is a vigorous soul and I found it refreshing that he associates vigour with connected thought.  As you see from the second quotation below, thinking a thought about life and getting it expressed is a Herculean labour. 'No exercise implies more real manhood and...

My kind of uncle

Wouldn't you love an uncle who could walk up and down both sides of a straight ladder, especially the part about walking down the other side facing away from the ladder, kicking the steps behind him?  That sounds like a Jacques Tati kind of uncle. 'Hosmer says that a...

Dumb as …

Thoreau doesn't seem to have had a particularly harmonious relationship with formal religion, and he makes some side-swiping comments about the church and its representatives, while also being an immensely reverent - and in that sense - religious person. 'I see...

The lovable vigour of weeds

Yes, I know what he means.  I'm becoming increasingly tolerant of weeds and have started protecting and even nurturing some. As a result, our lawn is taking on the character of a wild flower meadow, and this week I was heartened to see the first invasion of cow...

Me too

And sometimes I'm not even sure I know what I think because it's been so long since I was invited to express it. 'I am surprised as well as delighted when any one wishes to know what I think.'  23 Mar 1853 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion...

A straight-cut ditch or a meandering brook

Thoreau's comment about education will resonate today with many teachers and students, but I am glad he included the word 'often'.  There are many teachers who have (or create) the freedom to turn meandering brooks not into straight-cut ditches but into expanding...

The heart of a rock

Having commented on the inaccessibility of rocks to the human spirit, Thoreau points out how much softer they can be than stony-spirited humans.  I smiled when I read that he would escape from hard, insensible men to go and commune with (relatively) soft-hearted...

It is hard to know rocks

I don't know rocks, but I do appreciate stone and am forever finding marvelous pebbles.  I've started using them in plant pots to cover the exposed earth; it reduces evaporation and therefore watering, but just as importantly, it looks beautiful.  Sometimes when a...

What was Nature thinking of?

Another of Thoreau's amazing fungus finds, only this one comes back to haunt him.  Installed in his house it reeks the place out, filling it with the heady vapours of dead rats.  As for his comment on nature, I hope it makes you laugh too. See also his parading a...

The fungus and the toadstool

Thoreau has a habit of bringing interesting things home from his walks the better to observe them. Twigs, fungi, animals (which he usually releases).  Two examples of his fungus-gathering made me laugh. This one, he takes out into the village, like parading a new dog,...

Watermelon casks

We were working our way through a watermelon even as I came across this quotation.  Never thought of them as rolling casks.  A little heavy to carry of course, but if you only have get them as far as your boat, and can then rest them there until you reach your picnic...

Benign in his bowels

Don't worry, this is just a metaphor for people who are cloyingly, invasively kind and try to absorb you into their world.  This amazing tirade, which takes up half a page, firmly rejects those who are overly friendly and solicitous, with a touch of condescension in...

Don’t try this trick at home

What a joy to read this sentence; there is no limit to the detail and originality of Thoreau's observations. 'A turtle walking is as if a man were to try to walk by sticking his legs and arms merely out of the windows.'  27 May 1853   Source: Henry David Thoreau, The...

As dumb as putty

Good we now have another way to tell someone they're dumb - please feel free to revive this fine phrasing next time you need to point out stupidity (your own is also acceptable). But how many inventive phrases get lost because there isn't an all-noting, all recording...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Not long to wait, then

At last, we learn that an explanation is on the way.  And the day after never isn't far off, now, is it? I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep asking the question. 'The day after never, we shall have an explanation.'  8 November 1857   Source:...

As much as if I were a cow

Wonderful character this Henry David, he gets excited when he reads of the 'Land of Grass' and then comments on how curious this is.  The image of a cow reading about the Land of Grass is also delightful. You can imagine it calling its travel agent and booking a one...

Death and funerals

Thoreau's tricky relationship with the Church is neatly and humorously summed up here. 'If it were not for death and funerals, I think the institution of the Church would not stand longer.'  15 November 1851   Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion...

Does it?

This theme has been intriguing me - how far is expectation prophecy?  How far can you create something by expecting it?  Thoreau touches on it a few times.  Elsewhere he mentions that fear can create danger and courage dispel it. And what is a sense of expectancy? ...

Black-frogged livery

Of several unbelievable sojourns Leigh Fermor enjoyed in anciently aristocratic homes dotted across central Europe, this may top the lot.  He seems to have come from a sufficiently elevated stratum of English society to be able to pitch up here and there, after weeks...

Television as Antichrist

Again, one of the articulate, adorable and utterly opinionated characters in which Ruiz Zafón's book abounds.  The doom-laden consequences of television didn't quite pan out as disastrously, but the elaborate and colourful damnation of the poor machine is worthwhile...

We exist while we are remembered

This theme captivates me and I have other quotations on the idea that we live for as long as someone remembers us.  The same applies to music, books, places, languages; they die when nobody remembers them. 'He used to say that we exist as long as somebody remembers...

Presents are for those who give

A generous dismissal of a recipient's need to feel worthy of a gift.  Ruiz Zafón's book is full of generous characters and the presents and kindnesses they give. So, use this phrase the next time someone appears overwhelmed by your generosity, it might make them laugh...

The pitfalls of childhood

What a sad commentary on the wounds we inflict on children before they are equipped to comprehend what has happened and perhaps fend off its worst effects. 'One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it.  By the time the...

Forest-haunting Lombards

This is part of a paean to the magic of the forest and the hold it has on our imaginations.  But beware the forest-haunting Lombards, who sound like something from the night side of the fairy tale.   'A kind of spell haunts wooded slopes like these: it drives the...

Green-leaf invocations

Surely a practice worth borrowing or reviving?  Leigh Fermor describes a woman beginning each verse of her song with such an invocation, a kind of homage to the leaves and the trees. 'She sang a doina to herself as she moved about the yard, each verse beginning "Foaie...

The first and last refuge

On World Music Day, something to ponder alongside the joy of music, whether making or hearing it. 'Music is the first and last refuge of dialogue between people.  Suppress that and the only option is war.'   Source: Richard Morrison, quoted in The Times, 16 Sep 2011...

The key to the core

Life and Fate is for me one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, chronicling unflinchingly the horrors it inflicted, and written by a journalist who reported from the front line of Stalingrad, who was at the liberation of Treblinka and who lost his own mother...

On the practice of life

Alice Herz-Sommer was a pianist also believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, living to 110.  She combined an astonishing resilience and a passion for music, and the discipline of the piano she applies adroitly to the business of life. 'The artist’s job is never...

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

Carson McCullers' heroine, the boyish, quirky, imaginative Mick, comes from a rough and tumble poor background. Her only exposure to classical music is to squat outside the houses of rich people so she can listen to broadcasts coming through the open window.  This is...

Anachronisms past and future

Perhaps one day the telephone, the wristwatch and haste will seem old-fashioned anachronisms, whereas here, in a library created before the 20th century, they seem futuristic. We may find other ways to talk or communicate than the telephone, other ways to tell the...

Dead languages or dormant minds?

There are some marvelous characters in The Shadow of the Wind, several of them highly opinionated and articulate orators, who express uncompromising views in lapidary language. I liked this round dismissal of languages being dead, the failure being instead our dormant...

On keeping secrets

An intriguing definition of what makes a secret worth keeping - not the secret itself, but those from whom it must be kept. This gripping book-loving adventure in Barcelona is built on generations of secrets slowly coming to light, releasing people from repeating...

Riding bicycles and darning socks

An irreverent assessment of anarchists, though having never knowingly met one, I can't speak for its accuracy.  Maybe historically there was something to it, but nobody darns anything nowadays, so it's clearly an anachronism. 'Anarchists - those people who rode...

On thinking things through

Of course, there's a lot to be said for thinking things through, but sometimes 'plunging-off' forms of thought have great value.  For one thing, they can get you started on a journey, whereas if you thought it all through you might never begin. A few times I've...

The sea wants to be visited

A memorable Gaelic proverb, 'dh'iarr am muir a thadhal', given that the sea is sometimes welcoming and at other times rebuffing.   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 46 Photo credit: samsommer at...

Of time and place

Time occupies my mind spaciously, and yet I'd never thought of it like this.  Is it true?  Think about your past, and whether you can divorce the recollection of time from the place where you experienced it. 'You can't remember time, only the places in which time...

Eagles colour the country they inhabit

The opening of this quotation had me asking how we 'colour the country we inhabit'?  I also like the following description of this great bird being bothered by small fry, or fly, as an old dog is bothered by gnats. 'Eagles colour the country they inhabit, but it is a...

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