Today marks the four-hundredth post on exlibrismagnis. For my hundredth post a few years ago, I briefly considered listing my one-hundred favorite books but had trouble right at the start deciding what “favorite” was going to mean. I finally decided instead to write a little bit on just seven parts of books – seven scenes or ideas that I think about often. Every hundred posts I’ve followed up on the same idea and provided seven more descriptions of oft-pondered vignettes. You can find the earlier “Top 100" posts here, here, and here.
And now, here are seven more. These favorites moments come to my mind fairly often in conversation, during events that remind me of them, and sometimes just in my wandering train of thought.
• Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn: Any time someone tosses me something that I catch in my lap, I think of Huck dressing up in girl’s clothes on one stop in his journey down the Mississippi. His hostess tosses an object into his lap and detects that Huck is a boy when he clamps his legs together rather than spreading them, as any girl, accustomed to wearing a skirt as she woul be at the time, would do habitually.
• Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: In volume I, the man who saved the West from the Nazis naturally wants to discuss another English leader-hero who tried saving Britain from an earlier Germanic invasion: King Arthur. Churchill addresses the problem explicitly: can a historian rightfully speak of the wielder of Excalibur? We can’t be certain that a man behind the myth ever actually existed. But, Churchill concludes, Arthur should have existed, so let us declare it so. Yes, let us.
• Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: The quintessential depiction of the character of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis takes place at the seige of La Rochelle. They make a wager that they can eat breakfast at an abandoned bastion in the middle of the field. Taking d’Artagnan with them, they make their way to the battered remains of protection and, bullets flying all around them, their comrades back at the line cheering and saluting them, they stay an hour and enjoy their repast. An inspiring model for all of life, n’est-ce pas?
• Jules Verne, Off On a Comet: In the most improbable book by the father of science fiction, a small number of French people – together with a small patch of France – find themselves transferred to a comet that has had a glancing pass with the Earth. As the inhabitants learn to cope with shorter days and weaker gravity, they soon discover that the comet’s path is taking them farther and farther from the sun, and the little bit of atmosphere that came with the little patch of France is getting colder and colder. But why isn’t the little bit of the Mediterranean freezing? The smart guy on the comet explains that freezing requires motion and that the lack of wind on their tiny planetoid has left the sea perfectly still. So he has a young girl toss a pebble into the sea, and the rest of the crowd watches as the frozen surface forms and spreads all the way to the (admittedly very close) horizon. OK, so motion actually retards freezing. But the image is stunning, and I think of it often when I see a frozen lake.
• Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers: The former chief curator of the Library of Congress tells mostly about Europeans and Americans, but has substantial things to say about Asian – especially Chinese – ingenuity. The Chinese value inventiveness so much, he says, that one emperor upon taking power ordered the destruction of a machine created under his predecessor’s rule just so his servants could design and build a new one. They were unable to match the feat, however, as were their successors for several hundred years. Sadly, this machine purportedly predicted the movements of all the planets to a degree of accuracy unmatched until Kepler’s day.
• G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man: Chesterton loves to dismantle theories of the psychological and spiritual details of prehistoric life. No one can study that life directly, he argues, only the detritus, and interpretation of the artifacts often says more about the interpreter than it does necessarily about the prehistoric people themselves. In The Everlasting Man, he takes on the the theory that the paintings of animals in the caves of Lascaux show that the Paleolithic people worshiped the animals. How do you know, counters G. K. C. brilliantly, that we’re not looking at the children’s play room?
• Lewis Carroll: Somewhere in the adventures of Alice, some character comments on Alice’s imprecise turn of phrase and distinguishes what a book is, what it is called, what its title is, and what its title is called. But I don’t remember which book the passage is in, or what the book is called, or what its title is, or what the title is called.
Now seriously, don’t at least six of these seven moments encapsulate common oddities of this weird and wonderful life? I don’t suppose I’ll get through this day without coming across three or four situations in which allusions to these matters would be appropriate. If it were only four days ago, I know I would have thought of Verne’s little girl as I walked around our neighborhood lake.