In 2003 British science fiction author Stephen Baxter published his long (592 pages) novel “Evolution.” It is named for its central character. In addition to the Prologue and Epilogue it consists of 19 novella-length chapters in three sections: Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants. The novel covers a period of some 165 million years. Each chapter deals with a different time period, the first one in the farthest reaches of the past, the last in the far distant future.
At the centerpoint of the novel, a few years from now, Life As We Know It is at its peak. Civilization is brought down by a perfect storm of pestilence and terrorism. Those few who survive retreat into the forest.
Until that point, the novel had celebrated the increasing complexity of the mind, the growth of intelligence, the creation of civilization. A success story.
I am enjoying the new series in the New York Times in which you invite the public to watch movies with you during a weekend and then provide your own and your viewers’ thoughts about the movie the next week. Already you have persuaded me to take another look at “Top Gun” Lacking an email address to which I might send you condolence for the dearth of new movies to review during this time of plague as well as my own advice on what else you might do during this hiatus, I’ll try to get your attention this way. Too, this might contain suggestions helpful to some of your Constant Readers.
You may recall Ogden Nash’s young belle from old Natchez whose garments were always in patchez. When comments arose on the state of her clothes, she replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez.”
I’ve been thinking of that young belle recently and wondering if she might be a version of Gaia writ small, or perchance Gaia is that young lady writ large.
Former NYCB soloist and later dance instructor Richard Rapp died at his home in Deerfield Beach, Florida, on the morning of Monday January 13, 2020, at the age of 87. His older brother called me from Wisconsin that afternoon with the news. It did not come as a surprise. I had called his cell phone twice that morning with no answer, and usually if he was not able to pick us, his hospice attendant would do so.
Richard was a member of the New York City Ballet from 1956 to 1972. He said that when Balanchine did not ask him to be part of his new ballet “PAMTGG” he took that as a signal. I suggested that perhaps it was Balanchine doing him a kindness not to put him in that rare disaster. I had become aware of Richard as a dancer during the company’s first season at the New York State Theater. Other dancers were more spectacular, but something about the cleanness and the elegance of his performance style appealed to me. It seemed that for him the created work was central and his job was to be the best instrument possible to show that work, an approach the direct opposite of another dancer of the time, Rudolf Nureyev.
If you’d like to see Richard in performance, take a look at “Four Temperaments” from the New York City Ballet in Montreal” collection, this filmed in 1964. Richard appears about 7 minutes and 25 seconds in, dancing the “Melancholic” movement (but watch the whole wonderful ballet): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tnj95tNGJ6c&t=822s
It is a revelation to see both “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate” in the same week.
Three names, with something in common. Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminsky. They are three scientists in cryogenic hibernation in “2001, A Space Odyssey,” their containers resembling nothing so much as coffins. They are among the four people executed, murdered, by HAL 9000. The other of course is the astronaut Poole. All that we know about them is that they are scientists, each having the appellation Dr. before their names, all of them are men, and they were brought aboard the spaceship Discovery already in hibernation because they are the survey team and their talents and knowledge will not be needed until months later when the ship reaches Jupiter space
I was in the third grade when I got introduced to the children’s section of the small public library in Greensboro, Alabama. That’s it in the photo above, the pale yellow building with City Hall and the County Courthouse behind. The books I found there were definitely an improvement over the school readers where “See Jack run” seemed to pass for excitement. At the library I found the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, animal stories, and books about the childhoods of such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that tended to be filled with lessons suitable for the young. And then I stumbled across a book called The Biography of a Grizzly by Ernest Thompson Seton. It was serious. It was sad. It didn’t speak down to the young reader. For the first time I found myself totally involved in what I was reading. Transported to another realm.
But as much as the individual books I encountered there and devoured before moving surprisingly quickly to the adult section up front, it was the fact that there were a whole bunch of books arranged in a manner that you could use to find more of what you liked. On top of that, you could find check them out and take them home. I immediately started my own library at home. All my comic books, Superman in one stack, Captain Marvel in another, Donald Duck in his own stack, each stack then ordered by date of publication. Big Little Books had their own shelf. (Remember them? Sort of a bridge between comic books and the later graphic novels, in a way.) Hard-cover books, the few I had, didn’t need much in the way of arrangement since you could see all 3 or 4 of them at a glance.
I even set up a way to sign out books or issues and showed my library to friends in the community. They looked and marveled but never actually signed out anything.
We who read widely have our great loves over our lifetimes, writers and books that somehow form the basis of our lives. Mine would include the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Biography of a Grizzly,” “The Little Prince,” “The Once and Future King,” “The Lord of the Rings,” Olaf Stapledon’s “Last and First Men” and “Star Maker,” the writings of William Faulkner, Emily Bronte, J.D. Salinger, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Patrick White, Iris Murdoch, Ross Macdonald, Neal Stephenson, Michael Wehunt, Adam Nevill, John Langan, and oh so many more. Some of these may be merely childhood romances, if such love affairs can be considered mere. Some are lifelong friends who have sustained me and continue to do so. Some are new loves, and as with all such one doesn’t yet know exactly how time will sort them out and how they will fit into one’s life, which is of course one reason they are so exciting.
And then there are those few works that stand apart, whose magnificence break through the canopy of greatness and soar to amazing heights, works that ravish me, amaze me, terrify me, thrill me to the depths of my soul. You probably have a few like that as well. For me they would be “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, “Absalom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner, “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon, and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez. The first two grew out of my high school and college years, and the latter two I encountered as a somewhat mature adult. Each one could be considered the Great American Novel, as long as we let that label embrace the Southern Hemisphere as well as the Northern.
It is no accident, I think, that all are American.