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Books & writing . . .

    In the last several years, the best writing I've been privileged to read, was in several books that I wholeheartedly endorse and hope that you will read. Their prose is beautiful enough to bring tears of joy to my eyes. These several novels, Russian, German, French and English, are acknowledged masterpieces. The themes are moving; the characters deep and resonant; the descriptive portions evocative; the vocabulary expansive and used deftly. When reading a wonderful book, like listening to great music, one doesn't want it to end. These are such novels! In this newsletter, I quote a passage from each book for you.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo 1862 (French)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 1873-1877 (Russian)

Howards End by E.M. Forster 1921 (English)

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 1927 (German)

    Even in English translation, the words are sublime. If you prefer non-fiction to novels, I recently read a book just as impressively written, by the American Donald Culross Peattie 1936: Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists.
    In 2010, for various reasons --both laudable and deplorable-- most of us have little time to curl up with a book to read for hours on end. We must e-mail, text, return 'phone messages. But some of us, nonetheless, experience one thing or another that at least temporarily affords us TIME. For example: less work --or none. Loss of a partner. An illness or injury that limits our mobility. Horrible weather that encourages indoor pursuits. In such cases, we can read. And we can read contemporary writing such as this newsletter of plain, ho-hum prose, OR we can choose to read classics that make our souls soar and renew our hope and our feelings of being proud to be human and glad to be alive.
    Choice is a most potent power. In an array of realms, our lives are Made by our choices. For example, where to live? Whom to live with? To raise children or not? What work to do? For what to advocate? Where to invest and spend? What moral framework to adhere to? A good way to be better positioned to reflect on, and answer such questions carefully, is to read widely. Below, then, are passages for you from four favorite novels, and the Peattie book.

from Les Misérables (St. Denis; The End of which is unlike the Beginning; III)
    "During the reading, Cosette entered gradually into reverie. She began again to contemplate the letter. It was written in a ravishing hand-writing, thought Cosette; in the same hand, but with different inks, sometimes very black, sometimes pale, as ink is put into the ink-stand, and consequently on different days. It was then a thought which had poured itself out there, sigh by sigh, irregularly, without order, without choice, without aim, at hazard. Cosette had never read anything like it. This manuscript, in which she found still more clearness than obscurity, had the effect upon her of a half-opened sanctuary. Each of these mysterious lines was resplendent to her eyes, and flooded her heart with a strange light. The education which she had received had always spoken to her of the soul and never of love, almost like one who should speak of the brand and not of the flame. This manuscript of fifteen pages revealed to her suddenly and sweetly the whole of love, the sorrow, the destiny, the life; the eternity, the beginning, the end. It was like a hand which had opened and thrown suddenly upon her a handful of sunbeams. She felt in these few lines a passionate, ardent, generous, honest nature, a consecrated will, an immense sorrow and a boundless hope, an oppressed heart, a glad ecstasy. What was this manuscript ? a letter. A letter with no address, no name, no date, no signature, intense and disinterested, an enigma composed of truths, a message of love made to be brought by an angel and read by a virgin, a rendezvous given beyond the earth, a love-letter from a phantom to a shade. These lines, fallen one by one upon the paper, were what might be called drops of soul."

from Anna Karenina (Part 4, chapter 24)
    "Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he had found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy; but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined it would be. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who had been charmed with the graceful and joyful motion of a boat on the sea, and afterwards should find himself in the boat. He saw that it was not enough to sit still and not rock; it was necessary to be on the lookout, never for a moment forgetful of the course, to think of the water under his feet, to row, --and rowing for unaccustomed arms is hard; easy enough it is to look on, but it is hard, very hard, to work, even though it be very agreeable."

from Howards End (Chapter X)
    "Several days passed.
    Was Mrs. Wilcox one of the unsatisfactory people --there are many of them-- who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it? They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling round them. Then they withdraw. When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behaviour --flirting-- and if carried far enough it is punishable by law. But no law --not public opinion even-- punishes those who coquette with friendship, though the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable. Was she one of these?
    Margaret feared so at first, for, with a Londoner's impatience, she wanted everything to be settled up immediately. She mistrusted the periods of quiet that are essential to true growth. Desiring to book Mrs. Wilcox as a friend, she pressed on the ceremony, pencil, as it were, in hand, pressing the more because the rest of the family were away, and the opportunity seemed favourable. But the elder woman would not be hurried. She refused to fit in with the Wickham Place set, or to reopen discussion of Helen and Paul, whom Margaret would have utilised as a short-cut. She took her time, or perhaps let time take her, and when the crisis did come all was ready."

from The Magic Mountain (Chapter 6; Snow)
    "It was a park. It lay beneath the terrace on which he seemed to stand --a spreading park of luxuriant green shade-trees, elms, planes, beeches, birches, oaks, all in the dappled light and shade of their fresh, full, shimmering foliage, and gently rustling tips. They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops. How lovely it was! Oh, breath of the homeland, oh, fragrance and abundance of the plain, so long foregone! The air was full of bird song --dainty, sweet, blithe fluting, piping, twittering, cooing, trilling, warbling, though not a single little creature could be seen. Hans Castorp smiled, breathing gratitude. But still more beauties were preparing. A rainbow flung its arc slanting across the scene, most bright and perfect, a sheer delight, all its rich glossy, banded colours moistly shimmering down into the thick, lustrous green. It was like music, like the sound of harps commingled with flutes and violins. The blue and the violet were transcendent. And they descended and magically blended, were transmuted and re-unfolded more lovely than before. The bright, rainy veil fell away; behind it stretched the sea, a southern sea of deep, deepest blue shot with silver lights, and a beautiful bay, on one side mistily open, on the other enclosed by mountains whose outline paled away into blue space. In the middle distance lay islands, where palms rose tall and small white houses gleamed among cypress groves. Ah, it was all too much, too blest for sinful mortals, that glory of light, that deep purity of the sky, that sunny freshness on the water! Such a scene Hans Castorp had never beheld, nor anything like it. On his holidays he had barely sipped at the south, the sea for him meant the colourless, tempestuous northern tides, to which he clung with inarticulate, childish love. Of the Mediterranean, Naples, Sicily, he knew nothing. And yet -- he remembered. Yes, strangely enough, that was recognition which so moved him. "Yes, yes, its very image," he was crying out, as though in his heart he had always cherished a picture of this spacious, sunny bliss. Always --and that always went far, far, unthinkably far back, as far as the open sea there on the left where it ran out to the violet sky bent down to meet it."

from Green Laurels (end of book)
    "And that mansion is the earth, rolling upon its predestined course through space, its poles glittering with snows, its flanks with the oceans, its continents with the deep true green of the jungles and forests. This whole, this planetary life entity, breathes with the rhythm of tides, of day and night, enacts the drama of the colored seasons, and plays out the titanic epic of the geologic ages. On earth and only on earth are sunset glow, green leaf, and eyes to see them. Here is all we know of reality, all-sufficient to our destiny, our thoughts and passions. There will never be truer interpreters than the naturalists, of this beloved, dusty, struggling, fateful and illustrious experience called life on earth. For those interpreters to come, the yet unborn, the growing, the bay tree even now thrusts deep its roots, and in the ancient sunlight of today it ripens and keeps green its leaves."

(originally published in my April 2010 newsletter.)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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