r e c o m m e n d e d   r e a d i n g

Memory techniques of the kind I have described, using strongly visualised imagery, were invented in the ancient world and became the basis of learning in the Christian Middle Ages, when books were scarce. They were taken for granted, regarded as essential, and developed further by such giants of learning as St Thomas Aquinas, the angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church who has been called the patron saint of memory systems, and who made the unforgettable remark: ‘Man cannot understand without images.’

In England in the seventeenth century, the Puritan/Protestant ascendancy of the Civil War made a serious bid to eradicate imagery from all aspects of life -- methodically destroying the religious imagery of churches and forbidding the imaginative play of drama. The same spirit also banished from the schools the old-established memory techniques that used ‘imagery’ and officially replaced them with ‘learning by rote’. The discarded methods, dimly associated with paganism and Catholicism, were soon forgotten. If any attempt was made to reintroduce them, they were dismissed as ‘tricks’ and ‘cheating’. ‘Learning by rote’ became the norm.

Ted Hughes
“Memorising Poems,” THE SCHOOL BAG
ed. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
London: Faber and Faber, 1997


Several writers and readers, friends of Archipelago, suggest some good books:

Susan Garrett (TAKING CARE OF OUR OWN, Dutton, 1994; MILES TO GO: Aging in Rural Virginia, University Press of Virginia, 1998):

“I marvel at the hours of total delight I spend pouring over a large book called ON THE ART OF FIXING A SHADOW. This is a treasure house of photographs, from the beginnings of photography in 1839, through photography’s transformation into art and beyond, to 1989, accompanied by four essays written with penetrating grace by some fine art historians: Sara Greenough, Joel Snyder, David Travis and Colin Westerbeck. Hold this book in your lap and make yourself comfortable, let your eyes travel deep into the magic of Fox Talbot’s ordinary scene “The Open Door” (1844), from there to French, British and American photographs of architecture, soldiers and chimney sweeps, bridges and industrial plants (I love Albin Coburn’s “Pittsburgh Smoke Stacks” [1910]), street scenes in Paris, London, New York, the wild American West, and the artistic amazement to be found in light on the human body. If your library doesn’t have it, beg them to buy it.” ON THE ART OF FIXING A SHADOW, ed. Sarah Greenough, Joel Snyder (National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, 1989).

Elizabeth Benedict (THE JOY OF WRITING SEX, A Guide for Fiction Writers, Story Press, 1998; SLOW DANCING, 1985 and THE BEGINNER’S BOOK OF DREAMS, 1988, Knopf; SAFE CONDUCT, Farrar, Straus & Giroux):

“My favorite definition of fiction is Henry Green’s, who said that it should be ‘a long intimacy between strangers.’ On the scale of intimacy, the three books I’ve picked are all at the extreme end, and all, it seems, are about nostalgia for lost worlds, or longing for the innocents we were when we got to live in those distant but flawed lands.

“Elizabeth Hardwick’s SLEEPLESS NIGHTS is a dreamy yet tightly written burst of what she calls ‘backward glancing.’ Back at the childhood in Lexington, Kentucky; the flight to intellectual life in New York; the encounters with Billie Holiday; the marriage that is over (‘Are you lonely?’ a young women asks the divorced narrator. ‘Not always,’ is her answer.) What endures for the narrator in this work of what she calls ‘transformed and even distorted memory’ is her life of reading books, ‘all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness.’ The last page of SLEEPLESS NIGHTS is magnificent.” Elizabeth Hardwick, SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (o.p. but available in used bookstores).

“It’s only been in the last few years that James Salter’s books have had the wide audience they deserve. My favorite is LIGHTS YEARS, a novel about the slow, quiet disintegration of what seems like a perfect family. Set in the late 1950s and mid-late 1960s, the parents are ex-urban intellectuals and aesthetes and devoted to their two small daughters. They live in a great old Victorian house along the Hudson, among good friends, good books, children’s games from another era. ‘They lived a Russian life,’ Salter writes, ‘a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.’” James Salter, LIGHT YEARS (Vintage).

“THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LE PAGE, by G. B. Edwards, is an oddity and a great literary wonder, written in the beautiful French patois of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. It was brought to light by John Fowles, who wrote the forward, after the manuscript was found among the author’s papers when he died in 1976. It’s set on Guernsey, between the 1890s and the 1960s, from the time of the island’s isolation and innocence, to its darkest days when occupied by the Germans – and to its current status as a trendy, ‘quaint’ vacation spot, which we’re as angry about as Ebenezer is, by the time we’ve spent so much time in his company. He feels intensely about everything and everyone in this deliciously rich novel of longing and love.” G. B. Edwards, THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LePAGE (Moyer Bell Ltd., paper).

Katherine McNamara (editor of Archipelago; NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Mercury House, 1999):

“The Dutch writer Maria Dermoût began this lovely book when she was 67; it must have been in her bones. A mysterious novel, it is centered in a spice garden on an island in the Dutch East Indies. ‘The girl was born in the Small Garden and her mother wanted her to be named Felicia. The father agreed, he always agreed to everything. The grandmother did not agree at all. “Happy! You dare to call your little child Happy! How do you know in advance?”/But the mother had insisted.’ A book dense with life; humane; to be re-read.” Maria Dermoût, THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS. tr. Hans Koningsberger (o.p., but available in used bookshops)

“Tomboys are fine girls; girls such as Alice Munro described: ‘There are times when girls are inspired, when they want the risks to go on and on. They want to be heroines, regardless. They want to take a joke beyond where anybody has ever taken it before. To be careless, dauntless, to create havoc -- that was the lost hope of girls.’ Christian McEwen, herself a writer, has collected a lively set of tales, essays, reminiscences to hearten any girl, in a time when girls need all the heartening they can get.” JO’S GIRLS, ed. Christian McEwen (Beacon Press, 1997)

“This novel, senselessly out of print, seemed to me essential, from the opening lines: ‘One January in the year 1941 a German soldier was out walking in the San Lorenzo district in Rome. He knew precisely 4 words of Italian and of the world he knew little or nothing. His first name was Gunther. His surname is unknown.’ He meets a woman who ‘stared at him with an absolutely inhuman gaze, is if confronted by the true and recognizable face of horror.’ A child is born; the woman, not young or clever, must keep it, and herself, alive in the terrible war-machine of history. This is very great fiction, a necessary book.” Elsa Morante, HISTORY: A NOVEL. tr. William Weaver (o.p., but may be found in used bookshops)


“Don DeLillo’s newest book is the work of art about America that Oliver Stone must have dreamt of in his best dream.” Don DeLillo, UNDERWORLD (Scribner, 1997)

“Another great American novel, by Russell Banks, about the same length as UNDERWORLD but reaching back to the life of John Brown as remembered -- and struggled with -- by his son Owen Brown. A great wooden ship of a novel.” Russell Banks, CLOUDSPLITTER (HarperFlamingo, 1998)

“This book, now out of print, tells the last days of an Irish gentlewoman’s full life. An unsentimental but acutely felt and perfect short novel.” Janet Johnston, THE CHRISTMAS TREE (o.p.)

Robert Kelly (RED ACTIONS; THE TIME OF VOICE, Poems of 1994-1996, pub. 1998, both, Black Sparrow Press. His poem “The Flight of the Crows” appeared in Archipelago Vol. 2 No. 3):

“A hard mosaic of unsentimental precisions from that terrible place and time [Auschwitz]. Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk was a leftist, not a religious Jew at all -- and her distance from ordinary Judaism sharpens her glance. A book I find hard to stop reading, and then it hurts so much one puts it down.” Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk, AUSCHWITZ , TRUE TALES FROM A GROTESQUE LAND (UNC Press, Chapel Hill, 1985)

“After all these years Ellingham’s research materials on the life and work of Jack Spicer has been brought into joyous, sympathetic and detailed coherence by the poet Kevin Killian. A study of the most important of the neglected poets of the last half century.” Killian and Ellingham, POET BE WONDERFUL (Wesleyan, 1998)

“Exciting and seemingly masterful treatise that proposes an important agenda of Dutch painting as (implicitly) a rejection of Italian Renaissance targets; Alpers studies the mapping of everyday reality, and is especially good in bringing forward the work of that great painter Pieter Saenredam, whose work astonished me when I first saw it in Amsterdam.” Svetlana Alpers, THE ART OF DESCRIBING Dutch Painting in the 17th Century. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983)

“I hadn’t known Woelfli until this book was recommended to me, and I find myself amazed by the man’s oeuvre -- one carried out in the very same Swiss madhouse in which the writer Robert Walser was confined. Woelfli’s work came to the art world (I guess) via ‘art brut’ and Dubuffet’s famous exhibition. Adolf Woelfli’s work is powerful indeed, intricate, inveigling. And bears comparison with ‘our own’ Henry Darger, the Chicago loner who wrote the world’s longest novel (REALMS OF THE UNREAL --- 15,000+ single-spaced legal pages) and acres of paintings -- a kind of naif Balthus, and with an almost identical focus on images of the child. Darger’s work, as far as I know, is discussed only on the Web, but well worth checking at the several sites.” Elka Spoerri, ADOLF WOELFLI, DRAFTSMAN, WRITER, POET, COMPOSER (Cornell, 1997)

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