Your chosen family

Most readers, particularly those who make little distinction between the past and present in seeking their sustenance, will be able to think of people they would choose for their ‘literary family’ across millennia.   I love the image of imaginative mitochondria...

Scobie and the sea

This quote has haunted me since I first read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet about thirty years ago. It is still on my wall in calligraphy. Scobie was a wonderful character. ‘Clea once asked him: “Do you not miss the sea, Scobie?” and the old man replied simply, without...

Bees and trees

This captures what I feel when I see sage and valiant bees and the genius of trees. ‘The earth is not as you see it. There is a sagacity in bees, there is a genius in trees.’ Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts (London: Chatto & Windus,...

Pebble pusher

Keats, known as a poet, was also one of history’s great letter writers.  He loved life and seized it even as it slipped away from him, embracing moments of joy centuries before anyone talked about ‘mindfulness’. He was also immensely playful, contrary to the image we...

The art of living fully

And how!   May you be ever inventive in living a full life. I will find some images that merit this quotation and make cards and posters. ‘Living a full life requires invention.’ Source: Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p....

Thalassa, thalassa

Osip Mandelstam is a favourite poet whose prose I only recently discovered.  His Journey to Armenia is a marvelous, textured complement to Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook. This quotation captures for me the hypnotic and curative effects a sight of the sea can...

Appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals.  Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.  

By ‘appreciation’ I mean something more than ‘adequate esteem’.  Need also enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one’s own powers, whatever these may emerge as being.

Source: Harold Bloom, Genius (London: Fourth Estate, 2002), p. 5

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An event, a happening

Mandelstam lived in a brutal place and time, costing him years of freedom and ultimately, his life.   All the more impressive and touching that he managed to cherish the existence of a single plant. ‘A plant in the world, that is an event, a happening, an arrow.’...

Life as gift

A strong statement by a man whose life was taken from him in the harshest circumstances, and who lived at a time when life was considered neither a gift, nor inalienable. ‘Life is a precious gift, inalienable.’ Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia, trans....

Located and alive

What a great way to spend a day, a perfectly Daoist state. Hoping you can also take in the brilliant facts of the world by being located and alive. ‘She was calm, engaged, located, and alive. … able to begin to take in the brilliant facts of the world.’ Source: Molly...

Immortality by reading

This wonderful quotation was published in El Pais in the days following Umberto Eco’s passing.  Wishing you 5,000 years of reading-endowed life, backwards, forwards, or sideways. ‘By the age of 70, he who doesn’t read will have lived only one life.  He who reads will...

All about revolutions

Fine understatement given how many billions of human hours have been lost obliging people to listen to revolutionary speeches. ‘That is slightly the problem with revolutions. There are an awful lot of speeches to sit through.’ Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road: a...

Green on green

A lovely description and an idyllic image of an English county. ‘Herefordshire is green on green, lichen on old apple branches, ivy in the woods, the rot in the floorboards.’ Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts (London: Chatto & Windus,...

Continue

Found in a letter by a distant and anonymous imperial Chinese official in response to the trials and complaints of the Imperial Commissioner for Porcelain.  A marvel of arms’ length sympathy offering no solutions. ‘I read everything. I understand. Continue.’ Source:...

A blank map

‘You’ll start with a blank map, that doesn’t do more than show roughly what’s water and what isn’t.’ What a metaphor!   Doesn’t that describe so many of the journeys we begin?  The book even includes a black ink sketched version of this rudimentary map, allowing...

This is my life

This statement of arrow-straight simplicity could serve as an occasional sanity check. If it rings true, we’re on track. If it causes a flinch or a wince, we probably aren’t living as we could or would wish to. Flipped to the past tense, it would be a perfect epitaph...

Awake!

Coming from someone who lived and died in one of the most terrifying times in history, a reinforcement to those of us living in gentler times but not without our own fears. ‘You’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time.’ Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia,...

Spirited innocence

Mary Delany lived at a time when most women, particularly of her class, were given anything but ‘full career’, yet she managed to carve out a great space in which to expand, and made that space available to others. She combined enormous generosity of spirit with...

Close questioning

I found this marvelous mention of Moishe the Beadle in The Economist’s obituary of Elie Wiesel. Given how much religious and ideology-driven effort has been exerted over centuries to stop people questioning too much, Moishe seemed to turn faith on its head by...

Watching the sun rise

This line stands out in the book as a contrast to the father’s generally benighted, crushing behaviour towards his sons, as if some part of him still inclined towards light. ‘He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise.  This was the first duty of living...

Street stories

The street as a fount of stories, conveying the detail and complexity of human lives, even those which may appear humdrum to outsiders. ‘Now I know one thing: no street is small. They all hide never-ending stories, they all conceal countless secrets.’ Source: Mia...

Silence & music

Music is everywhere, this seems to imply; even silence is gravid with it! ‘Every silence contains music in a state of gestation.’ Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans. David Brookshaw (Biblioasis, 2012 (2009)), p. 13

How to help a bird fly

Wise words for human lives, all the more poignant for watching fledglings make mistakes and still persist in flying, even after surviving collisions with window reflections that look like open sky. ‘You don’t help a bird to fly by holding onto its wings. A bird flies...

Shaping words and forming letters

It’s unusual to read such a detailed comment on the act of writing by hand.  But once you have the paper chosen and the pen filled, it’s an absorbing motion.  And such care taken by someone who is writing letters he never sends. 'He cleared his bench and began to...

To live?

Another fine definition of what it is to be alive. I like not only the ‘dreams fulfilled’ but also Couto’s reference to ‘receiving news’. ‘To live? Surely, to live is to see dreams fulfilled, to look forward to receiving news.’ Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of...

From here to eternity

This feels a perfect metaphor for living in the present and for the long run. Perhaps it is intended to be a choice, you do one or the other, but I see it as twofold advice, embracing the world from the big things down to its details. ‘He who seeks eternity should...

Life & understanding

Food for thought this one. Does it mean you are more alive when you are most baffled by it all? Or that you are most alive when you stop trying to understand too much? ‘Life only happens when we stop understanding it.’ Source: Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences, trans....

Life wasn’t made to be …

This quotation has become a companion, a reminder that life is – or at least should be - bigger than the daily concerns that often plague it. ‘Life wasn’t made to be fleeting and of little consequence. And the world wasn’t made to have boundaries.’ Source: Mia Couto,...

Reading as a meandering canoe

This is a beautiful metaphor for a boy discovering the magic of reading and writing, both of which were forbidden to him. ‘With his index finger, he roamed again and again over the print, like a canoe drifting drunkenly down imaginary rivers.’ Source:  Mia Couto, The...

Past into future will go

I like this concept of an inheritance as something solidly rooted in the past, but ‘willable forward again and again and again’. Not a burden the past imposes on us, but something we can take up and use with forward momentum, if we choose. 'And now this is ‘an...

Fate goes as ever fate must

This translation by Seamus Heaney rings like a proverb on the immutability of fate. Elsewhere, he brings it up close and personal: ‘His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.’ We would probably question the certainty part, as our culture veers towards assuring us...

Poetry as a boat

Another maritime metaphor in Heaney's introduction to a poem set in a sea-world.  The ‘big quay’ of language and literature can be a powerful deterrent to even building one's little craft, let alone docking it at the quay. That's where the current of creativity can...

The poetry of endurance

Endurance is intrinsic to the poem of Beowulf, and is vividly and touchingly depicted here as a bedrock of humanity. And I like the notion of poetry rising like an emanation from a fissure in human endurance. This is … poetry of a high order, in which passages of...

Poetry as a ship at sea

The sea flows through Beowulf's culture as much as any Greek epic, and its warriors are likewise mariners.  Heaney uses the metaphor of a boat at sea to convey a reader’s response to the poem.  May you be also 'buoyantly down-to-earth' while swaying in the element of...

Translation as hammering

Heaney conveys in a simple image the difficulty of translating poetry. Elsewhere, he refers to his progress as being ‘scriptorium slow’. If you have ever tried to translate anything of substance, you will know the slowness of 'scriptorium slow', and the sense of...

Language as anchor and mooring

Heaney uses several maritime metaphors in discussing a poem set in a sea-faring culture. Here he refers to speech that is 'unmoored' and then to lodging his own 'linguistic anchor' on the 'Anglo-Saxon sea-floor'.  If you have ever felt, in being immersed in another...

Long ago and still to come

This sweetly evocative opening refers to a quieter world 'long ago'.  But it also evokes, for me at least, a better world with less stress and pollution and hardship. A single sentence that captures something of the spirit of the ambitious aims laid out in the UN's...

Wisdom for a merrier world

Not a bad outline of what it would take to make the world merrier: the simple enjoyment of food, cheer and song. “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and...

Farewell wishes (and how to not turn up for work)

I love these leave-taking wishes between Gandalf the wizard and the Elvenking. I keep turning over the implications of the last injunction to turn up ‘where you are most needed and least expected’. I guess if we all followed that, most of us would never turn up for...

For use in a mouthwash advert

How did they miss this, those toothpaste and mouthwash marketing executives? Smaug the Dragon’s own glorious description of himself (my capitals): “Then I was but young and tender.  Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!” he gloated.  “My...

Seek and you shall find … something

A piece of sage advice - you will always find something if you look.  But is it what you (thought you) were looking for? ‘There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something … You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the...

Breakfast before a journey

Thorin the chief dwarf places his breakfast order having invited himself to stay at Bilbo Baggins’ house. “I like six eggs with my ham, when starting on a journey: fried not poached, and mind you don’t break ‘em.” Source: JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (London:...

What is a house for?

A near perfect description of what makes a perfect house, beyond practical issues such as storm-proofing; similar to the wonderful Italian song Voglio una casa.  ‘His house was perfect, whether you like food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just...

Write me some moon-letters

The love of letters, maps and handwriting all bundled into one exuberant quotation.  I now need to figure out the technicalities of writing this way. “What are moon-letters?” asked the hobbit full of excitement. 'He loved maps, as I have told you before; and he also...

The charm of trolls

One of many examples of pawky humour in The Hobbit.  A few pages later the same trolls are discussing what to do with the dwarves they have captured: ‘arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and...

The trouble with quests

Baggins has a healthy reaction to being confronted with endless roaming in the gloaming of a boundless, friendless forest.  But quests, by their nature, seem to entail ‘getting to the other side’ of something, and the something is rarely easy. The wizard’s blithe...

Away with adventures!

Bilbo Baggins has no use for adventures, as he asserts, before heading off into the greatest adventure of his life, replete with goblins, dragons, dwarves, elves, the wizard Gandalf, and gloopy-eyed Gollum. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. ...

A dream hotel

What more could a host do for travelling guests?   If any hotel chain is clever enough to adopt this as their charter, please let me know; I will go and stay, and if they meet the charter, will promote their hospitality.  The full quotation alongside. Source: JRR...

Foresight meets hindsight

Being a wizard, of course, would mean that Gandalf would know exactly when to look ahead and when to look back, and not get tangled up doing too much of the one or the other.  A life lesson for all of us? “Where did you go to, if I may ask?” said Thorin to Gandalf as...

Key questions for job interviews

Next time you are interviewing a candidate for a job, be aware of what they are really asking you: what am I going to get out of it, and will I come back alive?   Next time you are being interviewed for a job, this is the correct way to ask: what am I going to get out...

Letters unopened

We use the term ‘back of the envelope’ to capture the notion of jotting down an idea or plan on the spur of the moment. The film director Roberto Rossellini clearly made use of his, but it’s quite a quirk never to open letters, which of course would make it impossible...

The merry mind

The actress Ingrid Bergman had a short relationship with the photographer Robert Capa. I love this quotation from a letter he sent her, with its idea of a ‘merry mind’.  I started thinking about people I know who can be described this way. Ingrid’s autobiography was...

Letters unwritten

When a friend mentioned the special paper she’d bought to write me a letter, which she hadn’t yet done, I started thinking about unwritten letters, the ones we plan or even half compose in our heads, but never write.  Years ago, my brother sent me a card; at the...

Key Penmanship Indicators (KPIs) – III

I like this aesthetic amalgam proposed by Harold Bloom - another high-held yardstick by which to measure quality of writing.  Including my own, for which here is my self-report: ‘Falls far short of a bar high set’.  Or ‘aims high, falls short’. And if you missed other...

How making triggers invention

After reading a few wonderful books by makers and writers, I have come to the conclusion that their passing observations say more about creativity and innovation than a shelf-load of books dedicated to telling you how creativity and innovation work.  And while the...

Ambition and acting

This marvelous quotation comes from a conversation with family and friends as they were trying to decide which Shakespeare play to perform together.  They settled on Romeo & Juliet, and Zachariah then volunteered himself to play Romeo, on the grounds that “I like...

A long day’s night

As the month of June stretches to a close, I wanted to share this, an image of the day staying awake long enough to kiss the night. 'In the month of June daylight lingers long enough to make love to the moonlight.' Source: Elizabeth Goudge, The Runaways (London:...

Birthday blooms

Summer arrived just in time for its own birthday this year, but what a flurry of colour and bursting of bloom it has pinned to its bonnet, captured in this description. 'The sweet-smelling flowers of June were in bloom now, bergamot, lavender, roses, and honeysuckle.'...

Truly cultured, at last!

Although I never lose the desire for books, there have been moments when I felt overwhelmed by the unread ones, whether owned or just known (luckily I never worried about the unknown unread books).  At some point I even had an inner puritanical demon propose the...

Cherish a pebble

Fanny (Frances) Burney’s (1752-1840) letters and journals show her, like Mary Delany a generation earlier, as managing to navigate the stifling controls placed on women of her class and time, to find deep happiness in marriage and fulfillment in friendships and...

Civilization, seriously

What really holds civilization together? Women, according to someone Lawrence Durrell once tussled with. But is this as glorious a role as it sounds?  Hold on, ladies, or let go...? ‘Once we were arguing about the respective rights and roles of men and women in...

Civilization, one scoop or two?

‘What is civilization?’ A deep and vital question we need to keep asking. I liked this pithy response, particularly one scoop coffee-flavoured with one scoop raspberry and one of mango sorbet. In a silver cup on a sunny terrace. That's civilization. ‘What is...

Futility worth reading about

I like the idea that something about futility is written so splendidly that it’s worth reading before you give up on all human pretensions.   If I get around to it, I’ll review it here. 'My favourite piece of prose is Sir Thomas Browne’s magnificently resigned and...

Dietrich as satellite dish

One of the best film reviews I’ve ever read, so bewitching.   I must seek out The Scarlet Empress, Dietrich as Catherine the Great give or take some theatrical liberties, not least in the out of control costume department. ‘The movie is so vivid and brutal that it...

Free trade and British decency

Winder breezily lobs perspective into cosy schoolyard us-and-them memories.   Britain had a role in triggering the first world war (among others), summed up in one emissary’s snooty crassness; a caution against driving people to sprint into the arms of war faster than...

The Thirty Years War in thirty seconds

Winder has a pithiness about him that condenses decades of internecine squabbling and violence into a snappy summary of the consequences. ‘All the labyrinthine details of the fighting hold their distressing interest because of this futility: nobody gets what they want...

Late for spring cleaning? Handy excuses here

Yes, I did a spring cleaning that included washing the tops of the kitchen cupboards. For this I deserve a medal. But I confess I haven’t got around to the windows. It keeps raining and what’s the point if your smear-free sparkle is going to be rain-spattered in 24...

Beer mats and memory

I wish more writers would show their personal connection to their subjects. This warmth and quirk does nothing to detract from the rigour and insight of Winder’s writing; on the contrary, it makes it more memorable.   Gustavus Adolphus can never be a mere ‘King of...

Germany does do some great food

Winder has a passionate attachment to Germany – nobody could have embraced its vast history and culture with such easy mastery without loving the place.   Yet he sometimes seems unsure how that came about, and he can’t deny the climatic, cultural and culinary...

Wine and conveyor belts

There must be a good study of wine in European trade and war.   England’s sometime claim to half of France was curiously biased towards the finest wine-growing regions, until the French squeezed them into Calais, at which point they gave up.   And we’ve all seen...

Self-hatred in marzipan

Winder’s personal asides delight me and often express a curious ambivalence towards things he tries to disdain.   The marzipan lamb even comes with its own photo in his book, and the caption, ‘Here is a photo of him admiring a little matchbox portrait of Kaiser...

Map-fuelled idiocy

Beware the map-mad-man. Grappling with the shifting boundaries and complexity of German, let alone European history, needs maps. I am deeply romantic about maps, and still buy them.   Romance aside, they give you an immediate sense of sweeping context, allowing you to...

Parenting, then and now

This crisp and even cavalier telegram has a distant father allowing his four children to sail to an island in a lake and camp out for a week or two. Given their apparent age (circa 6-12), the fact that the smallest can’t swim, and the lack of supervision, life-jackets...

Leadership … Daoist style

As you know, a good children’s book has much to teach grown ups and often far more entertainingly than any drabness you can dredge up in the ‘self-help’ department. The ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series, written in the 1930s, was once a standard feature on English family...

How to build a library … Alexandrian style

The Library of Alexandria had 30-50 state-funded scholars and agents scouring the Mediterranean for new books.   It's believed that by the first century BC, it had 700,000 papyrus rolls.   Books borrowed from incoming ships would be copied 'with unforgiving exactness'...

Ubuntu – fine font and magnificent meaning

‘The quality of being human and also humane ... The person who had ubuntu was known to be compassionate and gentle, who used his strength on behalf of the weak, who did not take advantage of others – in short, he cared, treating others as what they were, human...

Handwriting as clothing

Those were the days, when you could flaunt and vaunt through the thrill of the quill. The investment of time and effort was huge, however.  Having learned you would have to stop every few lines to re-sharpen the nib, an action that echoes in ‘pen-knife’, I have new...

Key Performance Indicators … with a twist

'Here and there in the leafy glade of her letters a ripe berry of information gleams.' When was the last time you saw a Key Performance Indicator that grabbed or inspired you?   Since one aim of WritingRedux is to liven up language, why not start with a standard...

First showing

The blogophyte bulletin, of course, isn't just about blogging.  It's about starting with an idea and then making it manifest.   This quotation captures the uncertainty of putting the first results on show. Elizabeth Goudge is one of the finest English writers of...

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