Monday, June 18, 2018


Get this book from
Seminary Co-op
et al
Of late American readers have been well served by a veritable cottage industry of works about the Roman Republic and Empire, and their respective falls, and various aspects thereof, and what lessons we, with our republic (or empire, as some would have it), purportedly at the precipice of analogous fiscal, ecological, military, social and/or  political Seneca Cliffs, might learn from them. History may not repeat itself any more than we can wade into the same river twice, but, of course, we can step into rivers that look more than a sight familiar. Sometimes a nicely behaved river—let’s dub it the Goth Swan—turns of a sudden into a drowning horror. Indeed, a close reading of Roman history does suggest, in blurriest outlines, some analogies with contemporary trends and conundrums. But there are perhaps more valuable insights to be parsed from our own little-known and, relatively speaking, recent history.

In West of the Revolution, Claudio Saunt, a noted scholar of early American and Native American history, spotlights nine places and formative events of 1776 that rarely raise a blip on the radar of even the most well-educated Americans. As Saunt writes in his introduction, “The American Revolution so dominates our understanding of the continent’s early history that only four digits—1776—are enough to evoke images of periwigs, quill pens, and yellowing copies of the Declaration of Independence.”

As for knowledge of what was going on west of the Appalachians in 1776, I can speak for myself, lo, many a decade ago, when I was a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. History out there west of the Appachalians had seemed to me then... like, totally vague. I’d heard of some of the tribes, those ones with interesting headgear, mainly from watching TV. Since I grew up in California, I had seen some of the Spanish missions. These had had struck me as absurdly drab and morbid. I was not Catholic, and the Spanish were well and gone, as were those Indians, I assumed. In elementary school, when we got our dose of state history, I must have been told the name of the local indigenous people—the Ohlone— but by the time I graduated from college, for 64,000 dollars, I could not have come up with it. Had I known the term terra nullius, I might have used it.

In the intervening years I had the opportunity to remedy my ignorance of California’s indigenous and mission history; perhaps the more for that, I found Saunt’s masterful historical narrative so rich and riveting. Writes Saunt in his prologue:

“Between the continent’s far edge and the Appalachians stood thousands of towns and villages, whose millions of residents spoke diverse languages and belonged to a multitude of nations. On the eve of the War of Independence, even the most fervid of American speculators could not imagine the extraordinary events unfolding in the West.”  

The events Saunt describes were indeed, extraordinary, and “in surprising ways,” he writes, “as pertinent to the twenty-first century as the better-known history of the American Revolution.”

 To begin with, in 1776, the Russians, having pushed across Siberia—their Peru, their Mexico—were several years already in the Aleutian Islands, their main modus operandi, when attempts to trade beads and such failed, to seize Aleut hostages in exchange for payment in furs. The Russians were voracious for furs to sell, above all, to Beijing—fox, seal, and what was so abundant in the Aleutians, otter, what they called “soft gold.”  >> [CONTINUE READING]

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, June 11, 2018


Get this book from
Seminary Coop
Graphics Press
As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

While I increasingly rely on the Internet for reference—I’ll more likely type a word into my on-line dictionary or thesaurus than pull a wrist-breaker of an old tome off its shelf—there is still no substitute for a writer’s reference library—real books on a real shelf, at-hand. And among the most useful works in my own reference library is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. 
From the catalog copy:
“... Tufte presents—and comments on—more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language. 
“The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept—short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.”
But Artful Sentences is not only for aspiring writers. Having written more books than I’ll bother to count, I still find that an occasional review consistently yields inspirations.
Where, and for what effect, can I limber up my writing? Perhaps I need to work in shorter sentences. (p. 9) Bright little ones! 
Or perhaps, I could play a bit with what Tufte terms “Catalogs of modifiers” (p.100)-- basically, a bunch, a spew, an avalanche of adjectives. 
Or perhaps, I might try an adjective as an opener.” (p.160) Open doors, don’t they seem more inviting?

Artful Sentences elucidiates the immense range of possibilities we have in the English language to arrange our sentences, and within them, the sounds and rhythms of words, the better to sharpen and strengthen what we mean to say. And that, my dear writerly reader, is power.

P.S. You will find more recommended reading on my workshop page. 
> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Q & A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub on PRODIGAL CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE OF G-D

Starting this year, every fourth Monday I run a Q & A with a fellow writer. This fourth Monday features Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, the author of Prodigal Children in the House of G-d: Stories (2018) and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). His short stories have appeared in such publications as Hamilton Stone Review, Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing, and Second Hand Stories Podcast. 

Check out the Q & A  from 2017 with
Yermihayu Ahron Taub and his o-transator Ellen Cassedy
about Blume Lempel and Oedipus in Brooklyn
C.M. MAYO: You are co-translator (with Ellen Cassedy) from the Yiddish of Blume Lempel's extraordinary short stories, Oedipus in Brooklyn. Would you say that Lempel's work has been an influence on your own fiction? Can you talk a bit about some of your influences, and your favorite writers?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: Blume Lempel is certainly a source of personal inspiration, and working with Ellen Cassedy on that project was and continues to be a great joy. Despite suffering enormous familial loss in the Holocaust and years of creative block, Lempel built a career as a Yiddish writer with single-minded focus and commitment. She created an authorial voice that was uniquely her own and a prose rich in poetry, experimentation in time and voice, and empathy. She looked at characters at the margins of society and at themes still considered taboo, including abortion, prostitution, and incest. I was drawn to Lempel's work for all of these reasons and in researching her autobiography, came to be inspired also by the example of her courage in life and art. Our work overlaps somewhat in our interest in life at the margins and blurring the line between poetry and prose, although I think much of Lempel's work is more firmly anchored than mine in the realm of the experimental and avant-garde. I do see Lempel as a kindred literary spirit.  

I have been reading voraciously and widely since childhood. It's difficult to pinpoint specific literary influences. I prefer to think of texts whose effects remain with me. Even if I don't recall particular plots, the authors' themes and concerns, and overall sensibilities remain. I am interested in writers who take risks, who go against the grain, who can create a marriage of emotional impact and beauty of language, who write with psychological acuity and care. 

A partial list of favorite English-language fictional texts, in alphabetical order of author's last name, include:  

Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents  Michelle Cliff, Abeng Marian Engel, Bear  Janet Hobhouse, The Furies F.M. Mayor, The Rector's Daughter  Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House: a Romance  Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place  Joyce Carol Oates, Where is Here?  James Purdy, 69: Dream Palace and Other Stories  Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea  Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Home, and Lila  Sinclair Ross, As For Me and My House  Elizabeth Taylor, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont  Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth  

If we include non-fiction, poetry, and Yiddish literature and world literature in translation, there would be many more titles to add.  

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer and poet for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: The digital revolution has helped bring about a dynamic international literary culture. Poems and stories can now be read by anyone with computer access. Blogs such as yours also support the work of writers and connect writers and readers. Before appearing in book form, much of my work has appeared in online publications. In the digital age, it is more affordable to publish literary 'zines, although maintaining the availability of defunct journals remains an issue of concern for literary publishers, writers, and readers. Facebook is useful for sending out announcements of new work and seeing what colleagues and friends have been doing. I also enjoy the travel, food, and family photos that people post! I started on Facebook fairly recently. I thought it would take more of my time that it actually has. I am not on Twitter or other social media. 

There's only a limited amount of time in the day. I like to set aside time for daily translation, reading, and/or writing or writing-related business, as well.  The proliferation of media in the digital age offers tempting distractions from writing. There are now so many offerings in television and film, many of them quite literary and demanding extensive viewing time. 

Still, I always return to the written word. And I prefer to read in hard copy. Nothing has replaced words on a paper—the joy that comes from concentration on those words, turning the page, the touch of paper, the heft of a book in one's hand or one's lap. The poems "Eavesdropping" and "Luddite's Exhortation" in my fourth collection Prayers of a Heretic explore the pleasures—cerebral, sensual, and otherwise—of books and reading from books. The key to productivity is tuning out all of the distractions to draw on the creativity that emerges from focus and quiet, or perhaps more aptly put, quietude. One can be sitting in a noisy cafe and still be in a place of internal quiet. 

But, of course, there are many ways to live and work as a writer. Find what works for you and honor that process.  

C.M. MAYO: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: When I lived in New York, I was in the Yugntruf Yiddish writers' circle for many years. Attendees brought in a poem or a story and shared it with the group. It was a great way for me to get feedback on my Yiddish writing and to encounter new Yiddish creativity. That group continues to meet.  I have attended two sessions of a poetry group here in Washington, D.C. I'm not sure if that qualifies as being "in a writing group." Here too, folks distribute the poems, read it aloud, and then provide comments. The feedback was quite rigorous and helpful, and I enjoyed the gatherings. However, I've only attended two sessions since my recent focus has been on writing prose and on translating from the Yiddish.  

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing these stories, and if so, how did you break through them?

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: Fortunately, I did not experience writer's block while writing these stories. As I note in the book, I wrote Prodigal Children in the House of G-d while on an artist's residency at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (Eureka Springs, Arkansas). Having three weeks to concentrate solely on writing enabled my turn from poetry to fiction. TWCDH was a magical experience — a great studio, friendly staff and writers in residence, and the ideal setting that combined natural beauty and a charming, historical small town. During the afternoons, I took walks and worked through ideas for the writing I was doing in the studio. Sometimes, I took walks with other writers in residence. 

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question At what point, if any, were you working on paper for these stories? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: My writing life as an adult has largely been conducted on the computer. Of course, the digital revolution has made it easier to submit work to literary magazines. Instead of having to print out hard copies, write and include a self-addressed stamped envelope, and go to the mailbox or post office, one can now submit work electronically. Writing on the computer also allows for extensive revision.  In my childhood and youth, I wrote by hand. In college, I sometimes submitted papers typed on a typewriter. So I remember well the challenges in the revision process back then. 

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail?  

YERMIYAHU AHRON TAUB: I welcome feedback from readers. I prefer e-mail over other forms of communication. I sometimes go for long periods of time without checking Facebook. I rarely use snail mail. I try to answer all letters. Giving readings, particularly ones that include a Q & A, is another great way to connect with readers. 

# # # # # # # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

# # # # # # # #

M.L. recommends checking out Yermihayu Ahron Taub's page on Beltway Quarterly.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Noteworthy Blogs of Late & More

Holding the Light: Pat Dubrava's luminous essay, Not Even the Trees.

Rose Mary Salum, Mexican poet, novelist, essayist and editor of Literal ponders #MeToo.

Mr. Money Mustache reveals his breakfast, among other things.

Low Tech Magazine:  Ditch the Batteries and History and Future of the Compressed Air Economy.

Granola Shotgun on Thousand Oaks. I was struck by the comment by host Johnny (in reply to Here in Van Nuys):
"I’ve come to the conclusion that fretting over aesthetics (like the abundant use of synthetic grass lawns and Lee Press-On faux facades) isn’t a productive use of my energies. Neither is kvetching about regulations or other people’s attitudes about… anything. Let it go.
"Focus on the underlying structural dynamics. Some places are well suited to change and will ride out future dynamics better than most. Others are destined to decline rapidly under the best of circumstances. Thousand Oaks will endure for quite some time because the people who live there have political authority and money to buffer themselves fro quite a lot. It’s a good place. It’s just not my place."
Here in Van Nuys on The Parking Police. This is a blog I've been following regularly. I am seeing some of these very same issues in northern California, where I have family, and as a novelist-sociologist (all novelists are sociologists) and ex-economist (yes, I used to be an economist) I find them fascinating. It's a grim portrait of place at times. But such is our societal and fiscal trajectory. And I want to get my mind around it.

Black Liszt: David Black talks about Innovation Stories in his new book.

Typewriter Revolution: I am honored that Richard Polt dedicates the poem "Vanilla" to Yours Truly. (I am back to typing on a typewriter again, now that I have another Hermes, an Hermes Baby, circa 1960s.) I got the dedication because I supplied the word as a prompt. Funny, I thought of "vanilla" as exotic and spicy-- I forgot, having lived in Mexico so many years, where vanilla is a sharply delicious flavor, and vanilla icecream packs some zing, its connotations of blah north of the border. (P.S. With his typewriter advocacy, Polt, a noted professor of philosophy and expert on Heidegger, is doing something far more interesting than it might appear at first glance.)

Cal Newport shares his morning routine with Business Insider. His blog is here.

The Archdruid has suggested that his readers try a secret experiment.



David J. Silverman gives an interview to Ben Franklin's World podcast about Thundersticks. This is a brilliant, important book.


A signal of a cultural tide turning: Rebecca Solnit's essay in this month's issue of Harper's, Driven to Distraction.

Fodder for another blog post: I recently took out a batch of print magazine subscriptions, so as to spend less time on the iPad. So far so good-- and if not for my Harper's subscription, I would have missed Solnit's essay. But I treasure the blogosphere. As a writer I love the freedom and speed; as a reader, I relish the adventures with unique, unfiltered voices and their sometimes fabulous, sometimes squirrely, othertimes, whoa, too-way-out-for-prime-time ideas and information.

>>Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Blast Past Easy: A Permutation Exercise with Clichés

As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

Yes, this was on my bookshelf and
yes, I actually used to consult it
I've previously posted on my favorite exercises for a fast-acting manuscript Rx, what I call "emulation" or "permutation" exercises, here. (Which one is it, emulation or permutation? Depends. That would be another post.)

The basic idea is to take a phrase or perhaps as many as a few sentences from another writer's work or from your own manuscript, and play with it in some predetermined way. Sometimes the exercise might prompt a new piece; othertimes it might give you just what you need to brighten up the blah or smooth a rough patch in a draft. Moreover, for my wampum, permutation exercises beat crossword puzzles by a Texas section. (Yowie, that was an orangutang's tea party of imagery!)

Yes, I am being silly. To play, you have to be willing to be silly! Tell your ego to just take a long cool breath. You, dear writerly reader, do not have to use the results of your writing exercises in your manuscript, never mind show them to anyone else.

Simply, for any given permutation exercise, come up with a bunch of things! Maybe elegant, maybe dorky. Maybe even dorksterly dorkikins dorky. Then circle the one or two results that, for whatever reason, strike your fancy and/or seem apt for your purposes.

In my experience, and that of many of my writing students, doing these exercises is a tiny investment for a mega-payoff. The more often you do these little exercises, the easier they get, and this ease will greatly serve you in your endeavors to write, and in particular, to write more vividly. You will also get practice in generating material you are able to, la de da, discard. And discarding unworthy bits and pieces of a draft, and even whole novels, without attachment, that's a vital skill for a writer, too.


There are as many permutation exercises as you can dream up. This one, what I call "Blast Past Easy," plays with cliché.

How can you spot a cliché? If a phrase sounds familiar and/ or it came to you too easily, it's probably a cliché.

What's wrong with cliché? For more discerning readers, whom presumably you would want to have, cliché signals a lack of originality and/or naiveté and/or sloppiness. In sum: mediocrity. There are exceptions-- for example, a fictional character or the subject of biography might use cliché (and if they do, that tells us somehing about them, does it not?) And some essayists use cliché for comic effect. (I'll be posting about intentional diction drops anon.)

"Like deja vu all over again"-- well, you can debate me, but I'm going to call that a cliché, except  as used by Yogi Berra, because he's the one who came up with it.

Here are a few clichés I happened upon in recent weeks' reading, and my permutations-- four each. If you feel so moved, a good exercise could be to add more permutations of your own.

"Talk does not boil the rice"
Talk does not shampoo the pooch
Talk does not slice the pepperoni
Talk does not iron the shirts
Talk does not roast the turkey
(You might try a permutation of the noun, "talk," e.g., art; violin playing; texting

"Shoveling smoke"
Shoveling soap bubbles
Shoveling Koolaid
Shoveling fog
Shoveling thunder

"Bet you dollars for donuts"
Bet you deutschmarks for Dingdongs
Bet you dinars for dinos
Bet you dollars for diddlysquat
Bet you pounds for peanuts

(Part of what makes "dollars for donuts" such an appealing cliché is the alliteration, that is, the repeating "d"s of "dollars" and "donuts." You might try varying the sound, e.g., silver for Skittles, or, pesos for pips, etc.)

"Let the cat out of the bag"
Let the cockroach out of the bag
Let the bedbug out of the backpack
Let the tarantula out of the pickle jar
Let the troll out of the compost pile
(Another permutation could be to switch the verb, e.g, Put the cat in the bag; stuff the cat in the bag; drown the cat in the bag; swing the cat in the bag, etc.)

"The bee's knees"
The snail's tail
The donkey's ankle
The sloth's toenail (doesn't rhyme but, oh well, I like it)
The kitten's mittens (is that a cliché?)

"A fish out of water"
A mole out of its hole
A horse out of its pasture
A sheep out of its herd
A credit card nowhere near a department store

# # #

P.S. Visit my workshop page here. For more exercises, help yourself to "Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises."

Today's exercise is

May 14 "Barrel, Mirror, Telephone"
In three sentences or less describe the barrel. In three sentences or less describe the mirror. Where is the telephone? Describe what happens.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Jeffrey Mishlove's New Video Series "InPresence"

Highly recommended: Psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove's new series of short inspiring talks, "InPresence," on his YouTube channel, New Thinking Allowed. 

InPresence  0001:

InPresence 0002:

InPresence 0003:

To date Mishlove has posted 70 InPresence videos.You can find these and his many interviews on the "playlists" page for his YouTube channel.

(I am honored to say that a couple of years ago, for New Thinking Allowed, Mishlove interviewed me about my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 30, 2018


Get this book at
The Seminary Co-op

"Systems analysis must become cultural analysis, and in this historians may be helpful."-- Lynn White, Jr. 

Drive into Far West Texas and before you can say "pass the Snickers" you'll spy the railroad tracks, which more often than not run, seemingly infinite sinuous ribbons, parallel to the highway. Travel for a spell and you'll pass or, if at a crossing, be passed by a freight train, always an impressive experience. All of which is to say, railroads are an inescapable part of Far West Texas scenery and history, and so, for my book in-progress on that region, I have been doing my homework.

Of late: The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a German historian and scholar of cultural studies. Originally published as Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise, the English translation came out in 1979; I read the 2014 edition with a new preface, "World Machines: The Steam Engine, the Railway, and the Computer," in which  Schivelbusch asks,
"Could it be that the railway, the accelerator of the Industrial Revolution, and the computer occupy different points along / on the same trajectory of machine evolution?"

In recent weeks, this question of machine evolution, to my surprise, has begun to interest me intensely.

At first I had thought of this book I am writing about Far West Texas as a doppelgänger to my 2002 memoir of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Miraculous Air, for the ecosystems and early exploration and mission histories of these two regions have many parallels. There are indeed many parallels, however, to start with, the literature on Far West Texas is exponentially greater and-- more to the point-- since the time I was traveling in Baja California, the experience of traveling itself has been radically transformed by the Digital Revolution. My sense of this is a compression of time and a curious elasticity of space; of oftentimes disquieting and othertimes most welcome transparency; and that constant pull to the little screens that, so it would seem, we all feel these days, whenever, wherever.

In The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch opens with a detailed discussion of the history of the steam engine.

"Next to wood, water and wind power were the main energy sources of pre-industrial economic life. The Industrial Revolution, generally seem as having begun in the the last third of the eighteenth century, was a complex process of denaturalization... Iron became the new industrial building material, coal the new combustible. In the steam engine, the prime mover of industry, these two combined to produce energy in theoretically unlimited amounts."

The "decisive step" for the development of the steam engine-- and ultimately the railroads-- was the introduction of rotary motion, "a kind of mechanization of the mill race." In other words, transforming the up-and-down movement of the steam-driven piston to the driving wheel.

In his new 2014 preface, however, Schivelbusch writes: "It took me forty years and the Digital Revolution to realize that I had missed the more important point of the invention preceding it." In other words, the technological Crossing of the Rubicon, as it were, was "placing a piston in a cylinder and applying the pressure of steam... [I]t did not transfer an existing form but forced a new form of power out of combustible matter." Moreover, "the piston's up-and-down movement was no longer the analogue of any form of movement found in nature but possessed a binary-digital logic all its own."

Watch a demonstration of a piston (in this example, powered by an electric motor):

Most histories of the computer's binary-digital logic that I am familiar with focus on English mathematician George Boole's An Investigation into the Laws of Thought (1854)-- the concept of binary logic. Schivelbusch's is a wondrously powerful insight. 


In his second chapter, "The Machine Ensemble," Schivelbusch explores the ways the development of the railways was experienced as "denaturalization and densensualization." With cuttings, embankments, and tunnels"the railroad was constructed straight across the terrain, as if drawn with a ruler." Now "the traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble."

And what is the machine ensemble? "[W]heel and rail, railroad and carriage, expanded into a unified railway system... one great machine covering the land."


With the railroad, argues Schivelbusch, "space was both diminished and expanded." Things moved across space faster, and simultaneously, more space could be accessed. "What was experienced as being annihilated was the traditional space-time coninuum which characterized the old transport technology."

Schivelbusch quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine, writing in 1843:
Heinrich Heine, protosurrealist
"What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time lone... Now you can travel to Orléans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to Rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the linden trees; the North Sea's breakers are rolling against my door."

Sniffed Victorian-era English art critic John Ruskin:
"Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from being a parcel."

(I quail to imagine what might have been Ruskin's reaction to a TSA line. We airline travelers have been demoted from parcel to cattle...)


For me, having spent so many hours driving through the vast spaces of Far West Texas, the fourth chapter, "Panoramic Travel," was the most engaging. The opening epigraph is from Emerson's Journals: "Dreamlike traveling on the railroad." In a car, as in a railway compartment, we are enclosed from the weather behind windows, and by a roof and a floor. We rest our bodies in an upholstered seat. Beyond the window, things sail by silently, inexorably, scentlessly: hills, fences, a gas station-- it becomes a blur.

Travel by railroad induced "panoramic perception." Schivelbusch:

"Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer belonged to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveler saw the objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moved him through the world. That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his viual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. That mobility of vision-- for a traditionally oriented sensorium, such as Ruskin's-- became a prerequisite for the 'normality' of panoramic vision. This vision no longe experiences evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality." (p.64)

Because this can be deadly boring, and necesitated being in close quarters with fellow travelers of, shall we say, possibly inconvenient social connections, bougeois train travelers took up reading. Schivelbusch:
"Reading while traveling became almost obligatory.The dissolution of reality and its resurrection as panorama thus became agents for the total emancipation from the traversed landscape: the traveler's gaze could then move into an imaginary surrogate landscape, that of his book." (p. 64)*

But back to computers. I am beginning, with fraying patience, to think of ours as the Age of Phubbing Smombies. To walk the aisle of a railway passenger car or an airplane  is to catch the soundless glow of dozens of little screens... the overwhelming majority not of text but of flashing images of murders, faces, scantily clad women, roaring dinosaurs, cars and other objects hurling off cliffs (what is it with all the cliffs?).. and cartoons of the same... In sum, a mesmerizing mishmash of imagery.


In the 19th century the "great machine" of the railway ensemble spread across the land in both Europe  and the North American continent, but, as Schivelbusch details, there were fundamental differences in the pattern and nature of that machine. Europe was already densely populated and richly networked by highways and roads; "in America, the railroad served to open up, for the first time, vast regions of previously unsettled winderness."* In other words, to quote Schivelbusch quoting von Weber, "In Europe, the railroad facilitates traffic; in America, it creates it."

*Quibble: Important regions of America's interior were not in fact a wholly "unsettled wilderness" until after the cascading demographic collapses,  and later Indian removals, and the Indian Wars. There were well-established trails and trade routes throughout the continent, many going back many hundreds of years. But yes, compared to Europe, the road networks in Amreica were thin and poor and the vast desert expanses and the Great Plains were terrible, as many memoirs attest, to traverse by horse-drawn vehicles. 
And while Europe's industrial revolution focused on manufacturing, primarily textiles, in America it was about agriculture (cotton, tobacco) and transport. In the early 19th century, what American industry had in the way of machines was, writes Schivelbusch, "river steamboats, railroad trains, sawmills, harvesting combines."

By the 19th century the string of older cities of the North Atlantic coast-- Boston down to Washington DC-- were linked by well-established highways, however, the rest of the continent had more primitive roads, oftentimes what amounted to footpaths and, above all, waterways: The Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Hudson, various canals, and the Great Lakes. "Thus passenger travel used these waterways in the absence of highways... One traveled by water whenever possible."

Unsurprisingly, the American railway compartment took on the distinctive character of the American riverboat cabin. These tended to be broad open rooms, more comfortable for traveling long distances. European railroad compartments took their template from the stagecoach, a cozier space.

Schivelbuch argues that in American culture the railroad was closely linked with the steamer both because it was these were the first and second mechanized means of transportation and because so much of the interior landcape-- the Great Plains--was described by travelers as kind of vast ocean. (Indeed it was, in an eon past, the bottom of an ocean.)

The path of the railroad tracks differed as well: American tracks tended to curve where European tracks would be straight. As Schivelbusch points out, this reflected differences in labor and land costs. In America, land was cheap and labor expensive. In Europe then "it paid to construct tunnels, embankments and cuttings in order to make the rails proceed in a straight line, at a minimum of land cost."

Ah, so that explains the sinuosity of those Far West Texas rails.


"new consciousness of time and space based on train schedules and the novel activity of reading while traveling" (p.160)

Re: The reconsideration of the concept of shock in the 19th century. Schivelbusch:

"The railroad related to the coach and horses as the modern mass army relates to the medieval army of knights (and as manufacture and industry do to craftmanship.)" (p.159)

 Re: A "sinister aspect". Schivelbusch:

" had become possible to travel in something that seemed like an enormous grenade." (p.160)
"The train passenger of the later nineteenth century who sat reading his book thus had a thicker layer of that skin than the earlier traveler, who coud not even think about reading because the journey still was, for him, a space-time adventure that engaged his entire sensorium." (p.165)

(Thicker layer of skin!! Just turn on TV news!! The commercials!! In our day, we've all grown callouses on top of rhino hide.)


Schivelbusch covers Haussmann's remodeling of Paris in detail in chapter 12, "Tracks in the City."

"The streets Haussmann created served only traffic, a fact that distinguished them from the medieval streets an lanes that they destroyed, whose function was not so much to serve traffic as to be a forum for neighborhood life; it also distinguihsed them from the boulevards and avenues of the Baroque, who linearity and width was designed more for pomp and ceremony han for mere traffic." (p. 183)
"The broad, tree-lined streets were seen as providers of light and air, creating sanitary conditions in both a physiological and a political sense-- the latter favorable to the rule of Napoleon III." (p. 186)


The final chapter, "Circulation," looks at the consequences of the changes in transportation for retail, specifically, the development of department stores.

"As Haussmann's traffic arteries were connected to the rail network by means of the railway stations,and thus to all traffic in its entirety, the new department stores, in turn, were connected to the new intra-urban arteries and their traffic. The Grands Magasins that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century were concentrated on the boulevards that supplied them with goods and customers." (p.188)
While traveling on the train put an end to conversation, so the department store put an end to haggling, for now there were price tags.

Department stores encouraged panoramic perception.

"There had to be noise, commotion, life everywhere... The customer was kept in motion; he traveled through the department store as a train passenger traveled through the landscape. In their totality, the goods impressed him as an ensemble of objects and price tags fused into a pointillistic overall view..."(p. 191)

The sources of parnoramic perception were at once speed and "the commodity character of objects."(p. 193)


"... whatever was part of circulation was regarded as healthy, progressive, constructive; all that was detached from circulation, on the other hand, appeared diseased, medieval, subversive, threatening."
(p. 195)


Re: The Grand Tour, "an essential part of ... education before the industrialization of travel." The world was experienced in its original spatio-temporality... His education consisted of his assimilation of the spatial individuality of the places visited, by means of an effort that was both physical and intellectual" (p. 197)

(At this thought, of the industrialization of travel, I had an evil little chuckle recalling Mrs Pofrock in Henry James' The Ambassadors.)

"The railroad, the destroyer of experiential space and time, thus also destroyed the educational experience of the Grand Tour... the places visited by the traveler became increasingly similar to the commodities that were part of the same circulation system. For the twentieth-century tourist, the world has become one huge department store of countrysides and cities" (p. 197)

I would venture that a more apt analogy would now be "menu of venues for digitally realized self-presentation" -- translation from the Noodathipious Fluffermuffer: "selfies." I hear most everyone shops online these days.

 # #


A curious analogy occured to me, that just as the automobile allowed for more agency for a traveler vis-a-vis the railroad, so the tablets and smartphones allow more agency than the television for the consumer of entertainment.


Lynn White's 1973 address to the American Historical Society
Both charming and profound.

Society for the History of Technology's List of Classic Works in the History of Technology
Note: One book that should be on that list and for some unfathomable reason is not:
Donald R. Hill's Islamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
Speaking of which, why isn't Schivelbusch?! Let's call it a handy, albeit embryonic, list.

See also SHOT's Basic Bibliography of Works in the Field

# # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Sara Mansfield Taber,
author of Chance Particulars
Starting this year, every fourth Monday I run a Q & A with a fellow writer. This fourth Monday features Sara Mansfield Taber

Creative nonfiction, literary journalism, literary travel memoir, ye olde travel writing-- by whatever name you call this genre, Sara Mansfield Taber is a master. Among her works are: Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's DaughterBread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf; and Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia.  

Without exception Taber's works are superb, wondrous, must-reads for anyone who would explore the world from an armchair-- and for anyone who would write their own. There is so much to relish and to learn from Taber's daring, her mastery of the craft, her ability to see the most telling particulars, and the exquisite, sensuous beauty of her prose.

Get it from
The Seminary Co-op
Book Depository
Johns Hopkins University Press
Based just outside Washington DC, Taber is also a long-time writing teacher, currently leading workshops both privately and at the Writer's Center (Bethesda MD) and elsewhere. And now, for both her workshop students and for those at a distance, who cannot take her workshop, just out from Johns Hopkins University Press, and with lovely illustrations by Maud Taber-Thomas, we have Sara Mansfield Taber's Chance Particulars: A Writer's Field Notebook.

I was honored to have been asked to contribute a blurb:

"Sara Mansfield Taber's Chance Particulars is at once a delicious read and the distilled wisdom of a long-time teacher and virtuoso of the literary memoir. Her powerful lessons will give you rare and vital skills: to be able to read the world around you, and to read other writers, as a writer, that is, with your beadiest conjurer's eye and mammoth heart. This is a book to savor, to engage with, and to reread, again and again." - C.M. Mayo

The following Q & A is reprinted from her publisher's website.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

TABER: So that writers of any stripefrom travelers, to bloggers, to journal-keepers, to memoirists, essayists, and journalistswill know just what to note down so as to paint rich and vivid pictures of people and places, and create a lively record of their experiences in and responses to the world.

Q: What were some of the most surprising things you learned while writing/researching the book?

TABER: The writing of the book allowed me to put on all my hatsliterary journalist, anthropologist, memoirist, essayist, journal-keeper, and travelerand draw together in one place all that I have learned, from those various fields, about keeping a lively field notebook. Writing the book let me re-live the pleasure of field-notebook keeping and also offer the prodigious pleasure of the habit to others. It is a way to get to live your life twice.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

TABER: A sense of exhilarationto stride out into the world, to experience it fully and observe it closely, and then to write about that world with all the richness and color they can muster. 

# # #

> Check out the trailer for Chance Particulars:

> Visit Sara Mansfield Taber's website.

> For an in-depth interview from a few years ago, listen in anytime to the podcast (or read the transcript), Conversations with Other Writers: Sara Mansfield Taber.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Cyberflanerie: El Paso's Secret Tunnels, Gondek's Biography Podcast, Patricia Dubrava on Ursula Le Guin, Susan Coll's Trailer & etc.

El Paso's Secret Tunnels:

Chris Gondek's excellent Biography Podcast is now available on YouTube:

A most extraordinary trailer, for Susan Coll's comic novel The Stager:

Alright then! For Politico, Nicolas Carr explains Twitter

From one of my favorite blogs: Pat Dubrava celebrates Ursula Le Guin

Trailer for T.R. Hummer's After the Afterlife (Nietzsche will be mentioned.)

For my fellow Mexican history nerds: Maximilian's Memoirs (link goes to a post on my Second Empire / French Intervention blog)

Reb Livingston reads "That's Not Butter" (Reb! I miss your blog "Homeschooled by a Crackling Jackal.")

Barbara Allen Hosts Palo Alto's First Poetry Post

Click here, then scroll waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down, for the talk on "Robinson and Una Jeffers: A Life in Letters"

Ye oldie but yumsie by Dmitry Orlov, The Despotism of the Image


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.