Eighty Days: Blizzard Blog

Time passed very slowly. Each day John Jennings and a couple of the others walked back down the railroad tracks to look for the rotary plow. Sometimes they shoveled snow from the tracks, or picked ice from the rails. There was nothing else to do. The men, and three of the ten women on board, did daily exercises in the train shed. Two Dominican nuns sat in the same place day after day, cheerfully reading their prayer books. One passenger set to work with paper and pencil writing a newspaper that he called The Daily Snow, providing the latest news of the train; each issue was produced in a single copy that was eagerly read and circulated among the passengers.

—Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

That sounds like a blog, no? I guess the phenomenon of stranded travellers taking to social media is nothing new.

80 Days: Packing Light

Nellie Bly

I’m a sucker for packing lists, so when I got to Nellie Bly’s packing list in Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days, I had to post it. Nellie Bly was one of two pioneering American women journalists who raced each other around the world in opposite directions in 1889–1890. Her rather reluctant opponent was Elizabeth Bisland, a southern belle whose natural habitat was the literary salon. Both were ambitious and had fought their way in to male-dominated world of publishing, as much by necessity as by inclination. It was Bly’s idea to try to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record trip around the world, and Bisland, who was helping to support her family, had little choice but to go along with her publisher’s request to join the race.

Fashionable Bisland took a typical amount of luggage for a lady, a trunk and valise, despite only have a couple of hours to pack. Bly, on the other hand, had been dreaming about this scheme for months and had decided that by packing light she could avoid delays from the transfer or loss of her baggage. She determined to take only one bag, and a small bag at that, a little leather “gripsack,” which you can see in her photo. Yes, that’s all she took.

For her trip, Elizabeth Bisland wore her new black dress, newmarket coat, and black sailor’s cap. Into her trunk and valise she packed:

  • 2 cloth dresses
  • half a dozen light bodices
  • silk evening dress
  • hairpins
  • shoes
  • gloves
  • silk underwear
  • nightdress
  • dressing gown
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • sewing kit
  • travelling inkstand
  • books
  • paper
  • wool overcoat
  • travel rug
  • rubber overshoes
  • umbrella

That’s not an unreasonable amount of kit, especially for a round-the-world trip, and it is only the bulk of Victorian women’s clothing (not to mention the travel blanket) that would have made it impossible to carry.

Bly’s outfit consisted of a purpose-made broadcloth travelling dress lined with camel’s hair, a check Scotch ulster overcoat, and the deerstalker cap she usually wore while on assignment. She also carried a “silk waterproof,” which I gather is a kind of rain poncho. In her teeny tiny bag she carried:

  • 2 travelling caps (perhaps that includes the one she wore)
  • 3 veils
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • inkstand
  • paper
  • pens
  • pencils
  • pins
  • needle and thread
  • dressing gown
  • tennis blazer
  • small flask
  • drinking cup
  • underwear
  • handkerchiefs
  • ruchings (gathered lace or cloth worn at the cuffs and collar)
  • jar of cold cream

That’s right, she didn’t take a single change of clothing. She writes in her memoir that “After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage.” Rick Steves would be so proud. I just hope the airlines don’t get wind of this or they will drastically cut their carry-on luggage allowances!

Olympic Russian Reading Challenge


If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, the answer is Twitter, that ephemeral playground of the short attention span. I haven’t forgotten about my blog, though, and I’m back with an Olympics-inspired reading challenge that came out of a discussion of Nabokov on Twitter. I tweaked the original idea and came up with this:

Olympic Russian Reading Challenge

Gold — One massive tome

Silver — One novel or short story collection

Bronze — Three short stories or plays, or a book of poetry

It isn’t necessary to complete the challenge during the Sochi Olympics, but you will get extra Degree of Difficulty points if you do. Leave a comment with your accomplishments and bring a medal home for your country!

People of the Book: Bookish Ambition

I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.

It’s That Time of Year…

Time for my favourite church book sale! I didn’t do as well as I did in 2011 and 2012, but I certainly didn’t come home empty-handed, and I did get a couple of gems.

  • Arts and the Man: A Short Introduction to Aesthetics by Irwin Edman. I mostly got it for the clever title.
  • Totalitarianism and Antisemitism by Hannah Arendt. Alas they did not have Imperialism, which is the second volume of Arendt’s trilogy, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’ll have to find it somewhere else. If I don’t get arrested first.
  • Norton Critical Edition of The Communist Manifesto. OK, now I’m definitely going to get arrested.
  • The Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Lu K’uan Yü. Something to keep me occupied while in detention.
  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. In case I never get out of detention
  • London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Supposed to be very good. It’ll go nicely with the epic novel London by Edward Rutherfurd which I got at the thrift store a while back.
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. Requires no explanation!
  • The Vogue Sewing Book and The Vogue Sewing Book of Fitting, Adjustments and Alterations. A nice matching set of basic references.
  • A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum. Massive. Weighs 6 pounds. Entirely pre-digital; in fact it really only covers the first 100 years or so. The second century of photography won’t fit in a book!

It’s just as well I did not come home with too many books since I am running out of places to put them. I’m still waiting for someone to invent anti-gravity ceiling bookshelves…

International Literacy Day 2013

I’m not sure whether to say “Happy International Literacy Day” because as the UNESCO infographic below says, the state of literacy in the world is quite serious. Nearly a billion people lack basic literacy skills. Can this be possible, 5,000 years after the invention of writing? You would think that such a powerful technology would be spread and sought with enthusiasm, like agriculture, the wheel, electricity and the internal combustion engine. Yet this master tool of civilization cannot be used by 12.5% of the human population (not counting children under age 15). Two thirds of these are girls and women, which is a critical problem because uneducated women tend to have larger, poorer, less educated, and less healthy families than educated women. I don’t think it is a coincidence that illiteracy is highest in the world’s conflict zones, South Asia, West Asia, and Africa. The pen is only mightier than the sword when one knows how to wield it. A literate, educated population may be the best defense against oppression, extremism, and economic exploitation, which is why literacy should be a priority for development. Give people the tools and they can take care of themselves and each other.

[Click infographic for a larger version.]

International Literacy Day 2013

Adam Gopnik: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful article on why we need the humanities, and in particular, literature departments:

So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.

If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum proton-nuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever; they would all migrate someplace where they could still talk Shakespeare and Proust and the rest….

So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said*, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

—Adam Gopnik, Why Teach English? [The New Yorker, August 27, 2013]

*The “first professor” being Dr. Johnson, who said “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” [Review of Jenyn's Free Enquiry," 1757]

via @sophieelmhirst

Bleak House: The bleakness of house tours

The old housekeeper, with a gracious severity of deportment, waves her hand towards the great staircase. Mr. Guppy and his friend follow Rosa; Mrs. Rouncewell and her grandson follow them; a young gardener goes before to open the shutters.

As is usually the case with people who go over houses, Mr. Guppy and his friend are dead beat before they have well begun. They straggle about in wrong places, look at wrong things, don’t care for the right things, gape when more rooms are opened, exhibit profound depression of spirits, and are clearly knocked up. In each successive chamber that they enter, Mrs. Rouncewell, who is as upright as the house itself, rests apart in a window-seat or other such nook and listens with stately approval to Rosa’s exposition. Her grandson is so attentive to it that Rosa is shyer than ever—and prettier. Thus they pass on from room to room, raising the pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts it out again. It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years.

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Snow Falling on Cedars: Leaves

Her life had always been strenuous—field work, internment, more field work on top of housework—but during this period under Mrs. Shigemura’s tutelage she had learned to compose herself in the face of it. It was a matter in part of posture and breathing, but even more so of soul. Mrs. Shigemura taught her to seek union with the Greater Life and to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree: The prospect of death in autumn, she said, was irrelevant next to its happy recognition of its participation in the life of the tree itself. In America, she said, there was fear of death; here life was separate from Being. A Japanese, on the other hand, must see that life embraces death, and when she feels the truth of this she will gain tranquility.

—David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars