Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Common Sense Backups

What about backups? Glitches happen. A dust widget has fallen into the disk drive; your fingers got mixed up, hit the option key twice; this app has taken on a mind of it's own; it has taken over the whole desktop; nothing works any more; shut the computer down and you lose an hour of changes because you haven’t saved since way back when. Modern programming is to me wonderful, but still the unpleasant fact is that bad things can happen, big chunks of data lost in cyberspace, where only a highly paid expert who sees you coming can find it. Apps, even the ones you pay for, may not have been adequately tested, may not have been tested at all.

I do backups every night. I also do weekly backups, and sometimes a monthly. And last but not least, I am not so lazy that I can't put my finger on the save button every little while. The app I use most frequently, Emacs, auto-saves every five minutes. Emacs has never let me down.

I don't like carrying snap drives around, though for a long time I carried around a 16G SD card in my wallet. In this digital age people naturally have on their computer precious files. It can be 2 or 3G of family pictures, the babies growing up. It can be a precious journal, or a novel once written and fondly remembered. An accident, a careless deletion, and these files may be lost forever. I have always been astonished how quickly major deletions happen. There is no time for a second shot. You press the button and it is gone. A fire, a big storm can make you naked fast. For once the word devastating truly applies.

Many millions of people carry around their backups on snap drives. They put these drives and disks in wallet or pocket book or on key chain because they don't know what else to do with them. Of course they understand that these cherished drives are as apt to get stolen as the house the machine is in is apt to burn down. On the other hand, if the house is burned down, the drives are safe in your pocket in Walmart, where you are shopping; and if somebody steals your pocket book, the drives in your machine are safe at home. To both lose drives and machines at the same time is hard to imagine; and frankly in my opinion not worth thinking about. If you are that unlucky, be happy you are still alive. But that is not the only snafu.

I am a writer, for what it is worth. It's a habit, and for about the last ten years almost all of my writing has been done on a computer. Recently I lost a disk drive. I had a plan in place and everything worked, but it took me a week or so to get back up to speed. I got the stuff I was working on going again pretty fast, but to return configuration files and settings exactly how I wanted took awhile.

I love to write on my computer. Since I have been retired, I do not much else. Actually, modern computers are not built for writing with. There are hardly any good programs or apps for writing. A lot of people will consider that statement to be rather dumb. But that is because they may write an occasional email or a report for school. If you sit down in front of your machine with the notion that you'll write a six-hundred page novel, or four or five of them, you will soon know what I mean. I have tried every app I know about. Most are painfully slow and difficult to use. There are writing systems involving multiple apps. They are useful if you think a lot about writing but never quite get there. Distractions are deadly. The screen gets overloaded with multicolor charts, outlines, time lines, plans, notes, and the first word is yet to be written. However, there are a few apps that work okay, that encourage you to get started now and not confuse yourself too much. One good one, if you are in ⋆NIX, is Pyroom. It is blazing fast, won't waste a second of your time; another, if you happen to be on the Mac is good old Bean. These two, I can tell you, if you have a big project in mind and want to get through it will always be there to focus your concentration.1 But though they work okay they won't support much else besides an rtf or a txt file. If you are lucky enough to have a publisher or an editor, they probably will want a txt file anyway. But most serious writers blog or they self-publish. I love the idea of self-publishing. I don't want an agent or an editor. I love the whole process from the creative writing to the published book. I love to write raw LaTeX or raw HTML, dabble in CSS, and so my writing app of choice is Emacs. When I am writing on the Mac, I like to use Aquamacs, and when I am writing on BSD I use Emacs. Whichever I use, I think about backups all the time.

Now in my case, the disk drive did not suddenly cease functioning. It proceeded along slowly toward a condition that ended up being non-functional. The drive was not even a year old. I thought my FreeBSD system was the culprit for several days. In ⋆NIX X-windows is always playing tricks. It is always the shakiest part of the system simply because it plays the largest part. I convinced myself that what was giving me trouble was X-windows. Besides, I've never had a disk drive go on me in 10 years. Anyway, I got to a point where I couldn't startx anymore. UNIX is wonderfully clever about allowing you to get back into the system in single user mode. The system lets you boot up to a root terminal, and mount whatever directories need to be rescued. It was either the disk or the system that was broken. I had just done a backup of my home directory, so all I needed to do then is mount one folder and get out a couple hours work, and I would be in the clear. If you do backups of your home directory, date them and hang on to three or four of them just in case. Of course, you must know that these backups will be useless if you don't load them on a separate media, a snap drive or SD card or external disk or something. If disk or system is dropping off to digital mystery land, obviously then is not the time to back up. Get out, boot into rescue mode, save the files you need to or can, and hope that they have not caught the general malaise.

I still did not know what was going on for sure. With everything off my system, I started an upgrade. But the upgrade acted funny immediately. Then I loaded a brand new fresh squeaky clean system. Still nothing worked. When I installed one of my spare hard drives, that solved the problem. I should have known, of course, but for me it was a first.

The point I want to make is that there is no ultimate solution; the only other solution is to backup the backup, and that is not the ultimate solution. Even a RAID system if your OS is smoldering, something surprising is going on during an upgrade or update, for example, is not going to help you out. If your OS is smoldering, has caught a bug, for instance, and you are running a RAID, both drives, if it is a RAID 1, which is most common, will be smoldering. Then all your planning will just reward you with two screwed up drives instead of one. This is true with hourly updates to the backups. If you are in a system that is having problems, and you forget to turn off the automatic updates, you are updating your problems.2

Fortunately, there are as many ways to back up as there are ways to avoid backing up. The common user who does not back up at all may not be dumb. If there is nothing to back up, and everything can be easily replaced by another download from the net, why bother? One recommended way of doing an upgrade, for instance, is to back up the home folder, and then ditch the system and reinstall. Why worry about losing stuff you can easily replace? The general rule is to focus on stuff you can't replace. Everybody knows what is precious and what is not. Simple backups of files and folders to a snap drive may be the answer. One very intelligent woman I know, who has many precious files to watch over, wraps her drives in a colorful handkerchief and they go with her in her pocketbook. She insists on the above, that either the computers will be safe or the snap drives. It's her way of doing it and for the great multitude of computer users, this may be the answer. You need not go to any further expense. How long does it take to throw a file into a snap drive? Seconds, maybe. I put my main replacement drive, which I back up to once a month, in a fire safe. This drive, incidentally, is bootable but bootable only on another Mac, a fact I don't like, but I am stuck on Apple and though I tell myself how crazy I must be, there you are.

About snap drives and SD cards. When I finally bought a 125M snap drive a long time ago, that, I felt, was a game changer in computing. Even fussy old folks who had cherished photos and manuscripts locked away in safes had a strange feeling that these new memory devices might work. And maybe they could go out and buy a computer and learn a little bit and sure enough, they wouldn't lose anything. Before that I had backed up lots of things on floppy drives. But honestly, 1.4 megabytes? How should I be impressed? You could really put some serious stuff on a snap drive and not see that dreaded "no more space available" message. And no moving parts! I fell for the hype, but since then nobody has been able to convince me that snap drives are failsafe. What are you going to do when you plug it in and nothing happens? On the other hand that floppy I have in my hand which I just took out of the same metal case I used for my note cards in high school? Either the data is on the damned thing or it isn't. And besides that I have about ten usable floppy drives to plug in; and five more usable CD RW's; all collected at the dump. And they are free however you want to think about it. I have been looking with fascination at tape drives too. There is a ton of info in UNIX docs about how to do a "dump" to a tape drive. Again, the same case: it's either on the tape or it ain't. Eventually I'll find an LTO somebody has junked. CDs can be organized into loose-leaf books with notes and all kinds of other rif-raf. Besides the digital journals on my computer, my collection of CDs from my old OS hopping days when I went exploring with the DV7 has copious written notes. There are lots of ways to go, and I guess it comes down to what is most convenient for you.

Now, suppose you hang in there, become an ancient, it's now twenty years down the line. Rather than become less precious, those files have become more precious. That picture of your daughter graduating from High School valedictorian makes your eyes foggy with delight. By now those journals are your flesh. Lose a word and that is your flesh flushing down the toilet. Praise to tell another Steve Jobs has come along who has put his manicured finger on a super drive connector that is like a USB but on the other hand not like a USB. You know all those memory devices that you have collected? They don't work any more. I know it won't be exactly like that in the real world. (I wonder how close? I hope not too close.) Suppose also those digital wonders degrade with time, and your beautiful photos have lost every other byte so you can't see them any more. Video is the worst, harder to save and back up in such a way that you can expect it to last. What's your plan for that?

Apps change. Who knows if in ten years a .txt file will work on your computer? If you are as compulsively against typos as a conscientious farmer is in rooting out weeds, do you really want to know that a bad crash can rip big holes in your files? Or that there is such a thing as byte rot? I personally will continue to do my backups. The Selectric is in a corner of the hay barn where I put it a long time ago. That's where it will stay. But a wise person might certainly think twice. Good luck. I still have manuscripts from 40 years ago. If they had been digital files?

1. To give due props, there is an app called Jer's Novel Writer. It is the world's best dang word processor. Last I heard it is no longer maintained. The author of it got a job with Apple. I'll try to do justice to it one day.

2. This is of course way over simplified. We are just little people trying to hang on to our precious files. I wouldn't be writing this if I did not think it could be done.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Just Simple

One day a couple of years ago, I was haying a field on the hillside across the valley from the hillside I live on. The field was owned by an old geezer whose house was similar to a shack. But the shack stood in the middle of a beautiful garden. There was a curious blend of vegetables and flowers, as if he could not figure out which he wanted, and decided to throw in some of both. Perhaps he did not want to decide, that being a part of his simple life, not to debate this or that for no apparent reason, especially when either would be to the good. Other than the garden, he kept the grass around the house and garden nicely mowed, if not pristine. Certainly he was in no hurry to give the house and grounds a manicure. Wouldn't that be too complicated? The house was set up in front of the trees on the western edge of the field, a good place in Maine for both summer and winter. In summer the house was in the shade all afternoon, while the large garden in front of the house, would remain in the sun all day. The other smaller gardens were a bit closer and to the south of the house so that they would enjoy shade in the afternoon, nice for those beans and a good number of fern and flower plants. And, of course, in the winter the thick woods to the north and the west were a protection against the blunt, frozen westerlies that afflict the mountains and foothills for day after day in late winter. An ample chimney stuck out of the steel peaked roof, but the house was not much for size and a bit discomforted at the windows and doors. Still the sides were covered with overlapped pine boards, and the eves and edges were straight and plumb enough. Already, and this early in haying, there looked to be five cords of bone dry hardwood, most of it appearing to be ash, stacked nicely but left uncovered for sun and wind to dry as the old folks used to do in the summer in days past. On the whole the house appeared such that it might put up with a Maine winter. As I worked, I took many a side ward glance to refresh my mind for thinking about it. Oh yes, it occurred to me to look for an electric line. There it was. But on the whole hard to imagine a simpler arrangement.

Took me two days in marvelous early summer weather to bale that field. I saw the old fellow. Don't disappoint me by wondering if he owned a Victorian Mansion in the flatlands and used this as a summer get away. Apparently not. I never did ask. He seemed happy to get his field mowed and didn't say much. He wore green working man’s khaki, like they do up here, a wide brimmed tan hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, the garb of a monk of the woods. He was a pale faced old codger. By god, he must lead a simple life, I thought. No funny business, no popup toaster. My personal fantasy was that he had a place in the corner of the house to kneel and pray. Or maybe he did his sacraments kneeling under a blossoming cauliflower, digging out those weeds crawling around in the protection of the stem like saints do sinning. From the looks, the old man was hell on weeds. He seemed surely a bachelor. Never a woman or a visitor popped in, at least that I noticed.

Later on my friend Bob showed up to help me load the trailer. Bob wondered if he did not winter in Florida. We debated the possibilities of a winter in that house. Bob doubted the house would have stood up. Bob also craved a simpler life. But in the middle of his craving, after a divorce, Bob got married again. He and I are about the same age, but I don't know about divorce. I think of loss, giant sums of money gone to the wind in exchange for a new woman, maybe, not that much different than the old one.

"Why does he need a house?" Said Bob. "An RV will do. Get sick of one place, drive to another. You sit too long, things are bound to get fouled up."

"What do you do with the garden?"

Bob's opinion was that when you got married, because you couldn't help it—getting married seemed like the natural thing to do—the simple life went out the window. He thought that even that house, or whatever it was, was too big, too complicated. One thing though, no visitors. Having visitors was the sure sign of a woman instructing the premises.

"Yes, a good RV would be the way to go," Bob said.

Though Bob dreams of a simple life, like me he has never quite managed to get there. He seems to prefer sleeping with somebody. But you look at it objectively and suddenly it seems a little scuzzy, I mean not the married life but the life of a monk in the trees. The monk's life may be nice for a man and God, but I am blowing in the wind about it. What does it all mean? Does God really reward such things? Maybe he has done his best in the real world, and decided to retire after his time, before he will become ill and make a damned fool of himself. How can that be wrong? But why should a retirement end up THERE? We still should have a thing or two to say and do. But on the other hand if you want to go deep, somehow you have to limit the distractions. Best wear down the distractions—and the abstractions!—before you make the philosophy. When you live in the west reaching shadow of Mount Tom, and you go into the garden in the morning, after a few hours, maybe you will come back to the house proffering more than an armload of vegetables, rather a thought, something to write down and put away to document a life that must before long end up in dust.

An idle hour sitting under a shade tree beside the garden; the full moon in the summertime heat gleaming over the fresh mowed grass; snow whirling in the blue norther's gale; a long walk through the damp spring woods to gather a few fistfuls of fiddleheads for dinner; an entire evening solitary awaiting the shrill whistle of a thought in the silence of dusk. A simple, complete thought ever come?

I went to the house after loading. I asked him if everything was all right, and I wondered about coming back next year, or later on for second crop.

"Sure," he says.

"Thanks," I said. There being between us an unspoken agreement not to talk too much, I left, thinking he might one day become more friendly. But we never did speak. The next year no trespassing signs up everywhere. Private property. Bob said the old man had died. Never did get a chance to ask him if he had decided anything living that simple way he did. Wonder if it was just that he had to.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tough Landladies are Best

    Jimmy Freeman always felt in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts a certain remote magic that was hard to explain.  There were lots of bars in the neighborhood, there were numerous strange stores, an organic grocery, for instance, in the cellar of one of the buildings.  In Central Square there seemed to be everything you'd want or could think of, so there was something for an outsider like Jimmy.  The closest other place to that feeling was Newbury Street in Boston.  And, of course, at this time in the morning, Massachusetts Avenue and the big sidewalks were bustling.  Big crowds were energetically popping out of the underground T station, busses stopping and people coming and going.  Where were the people coming from, where were they going?  Famous Harvard Square was just up the street.  Jimmy had worked in a couple of the restaurants in Harvard Square.  He had wasted many an afternoon looking through boxes in the used book stores.  He was just old enough to stop in a bar and drink beer.  But Jimmy preferred Central Square to all other places.  Each time he went to Harvard Square, he went through Central Square.  In Central Square there were educated middle class people living beside regular factory workers, real people, all shapes, sizes, colors.
    This day Jimmy and Neal took their time walking through Central Square.  Jimmy stood in a quiet corner in the shadows near an alley thinking about work.  Neal, a huge, majestic Great Dane, Jimmy's friend, Roger's, dog, sat on haunch having his thoughts, too.  Roger hired Jimmy to walk Neal during the week days.  Jimmy wasn't a big fan of work in the first place.  He just did it in order to avoid being hungry.  But as he considered the subject of work he wondered how it had come to be that work was so boring.  Most jobs even simple jobs, while you were doing the job, there was no time to do anything else.  But here with Neal, you could walk, mind that everything was going okay, and while you were at it, there was always time to think about whatever you wanted to think about.  Jimmy was always feeling his mind wandering.  It was hard for him to fix his mind on any one thing for any length of time.  He was thinking about somebody behind him like a shadow who had a notion of what Jimmy should do with his life but the shadow had not revealed it to Jimmy yet.  He often pondered this mysterious thought.  And then he was thinking about walking onward to Harvard Square where he might visit his favorite used book store, whose owner and chief employee, an enthusiastic dog lover, would be overjoyed to see Neal, because he often had a big, sweet Doberman around.  Jimmy liked to talk about dogs with him while he was looking through the shelves, and digging into the unsorted boxes of books stacked up everywhere.
    "I think I know where there's a pal for you to hang around with for an hour or so," Jimmy said to Neal.
    "We're talking four legs?"  Neal wondered.
    "Why not?"
    "Thanks, pal.  No offence, but that would be almost too good to believe."
    So Jimmy and Neal were taking a break from their walk, enjoying their thoughts and soaking up the mild hard working vibes that prevail in Central Square when two shots rang out.
    Jimmy knew instantly that these sounds were gun shots, not a motor backfiring, not anything else.  When he was little he had lived with his grandfather on a working farm, so he knew gunshots.  Then two shrouded ski-masked men ran out of the bank across the street, and they jumped into a car and sped off toward Harvard Square and took a hard right a couple of blocks up the street.  Just as the car was disappearing around the corner, a third shrouded ski-masked man came out of the bank.  He seemed astonished that his fellow patriots had already taken off.  He was standing alone; people who happened to be passing by were giving him plenty of room.  Then he was standing completely alone, nobody nearby, nobody looking at him, a mushroom on a stump in a field of daisies.  He stripped off his ski mask, his robbers' shroud, kicked them under a car parked empty at the curb, and then proceeded to slip into thin air.  A cop car pulled up to the bank, siren blazing, another and another, and cops jumped out and ran into the bank.  This while Jimmy and Neal were trying to follow the stranded bad guy slipping up Mass Ave toward Harvard Square.  He walked peacefully, and a block away he turned as if by magic into a tourist just passing through, and he crossed the street, retraced his steps, coming back toward Jimmy and Neal, who were watching him approach in all good curious seriousness.  Now a crowd was gathering along the street nearby the cop cars.  The emergency medical truck loudly pulled up also.  And the ex-bank robber couldn't have been cooler, more casual as he wafted his tall scrawny body along the sidewalk toward Jimmy.  Then almost brushing shoulders with Jimmy he turned sharply and walked into the shadows of the alley, sat down on a trash can and sighed.
    Jimmy looked at Neal.  Neal looked at Jimmy.  Both of them turned around, wandered into the shadows.  Jimmy sat down on a trash can opposite the man.
    "Wow, did you see that?"  The man said. "Somebody tried to rob a bank."
    "We noticed."
    "I think I'll hang around here for a little while, if you don't mind."
    Jimmy shrugged.
    Then the man's eyes fell upon Neal.  "Say, that's some fine looking dog."
    "He's something isn't he?"  Said Jimmy.
    So the robber stared into a contemplative shadow, woke up abruptly and said.  "When the crowd clears I'll move along.  That's one thing about me, I've never liked crowds very much.  Most everything I've tried to do in my life worked out fine so long as nobody was around.  I guess that is the opposite of how just about everybody else does things.  The less people know about what I'm doing, the better I like it.  So what are you guys doing today?"
    "Oh, just out walking.  That's Neal," Jimmy said, nodding.  "He's taking care of me."
    The man stood up, took a look around the corner, squinting.  "I imagine.  A fellow shouldn't get into trouble.  You eventually go away on a long vacation just to relax and think about things.  Lord knows, the wonderful fellows you run into."
    "I've often thought," Jimmy replied, "going to jail would be an interesting thing to get into, I mean just for the experience.  Course, you have to do something wrong, usually, don't you?  I don't know about doing something wrong."
    "I think so, usually, unless you get framed.  You'll learn a lot.  They are wonderful fellows in jail.  Next thing you know, they are hanging around for a lifetime."
    "So what happened in the bank?  I hope nothing too serious.  I mean, we heard the shots, but nobody got killed, I take it?"
    "You saw me come out?"
    "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"  He wondered, calmly.
    "I don't see any big reason right now to do anything immediately.  I don't think anybody saw you leaving in the mix up.  So you've got a little time to figure out your next move."
    The man laughed.  "What would you know about anybody's next move, kid?"
    "Well, you must have a next move, right?"
    The man was laughing outrageously now.  "Next move?  Convince you to put on my clothes and go to jail for me?  How does that sound?"
    "What happened in the bank, mister?"
    "Nothing much.  No big time serious stuff that I know of.  Lord knows what the other muck-a-lucks were doing while I was looking around for the money.  I got into a big stash, and we were outside our time frame.  So they left.  I've got at least twenty-five grand on me."  So the man eyed Jimmy and Neal in silence.  Then he perked up, "Say, wonder where you live?  Maybe we could make a deal."
    Jimmy giggled, "There are about a dozen good reasons why that can't happen not the least of which is you'd never get past the landlady."
    "Really?  You don't know me, I guess.  Wouldn't you like to have a couple of grand in your pocket right now?  Tell me where the place is, stay away for say two days, and I'll be cleared out, and you'll never hear a thing about it."
    "One question I would like to ask is, how did you get into this fucked up situation, I mean what happened?"
    "It occurred to me early on that thieving works, or I wanted to make it work.  It's just like anything else in life.  There's a notion behind it, and then you try to make it work.  I can't tell you exactly when the notion came to me or why, it just did."
    "So it always worked out so well it never occurred to you to stop?"
    "There were exceptions.  But why stop?  You've gotta be positive about these things.  So what do you say?  Three grand?  I've gotta get on the move now.  Once I'm in the subway, I should be able to get clear for awhile.  Then I need to hole up, and with any luck...they'll be chasing the other guys, then...I'm not in too bad shape."  He thrust out a jumbled up wad of bills.  "Sure?"
    Jimmy knew that in just five seconds he could change his life forever.  Neal growled softly.
    He was a handsome, soft-voiced fellow, slick and he had a persuasive way about him.  Jimmy knew that he could go off the grid for the next six months, or at least all summer till winter.  The big woods of northwestern Maine near the Canadian border had been calling to him lately.  It was a woods he knew well.   Or he could hide out in the Boston Public reading room for a couple of days.  And then carry on.
    "What's the matter, kid?  They're all small bills."
    "The matter is that you'd never get past the landlady..."
    "Oh, some old woman.  She'll never know anything."
    There were some old women who were landladies and there was Mrs. Wheeler.  That's who Jimmy thought about, he thought about Mrs. Wheeler.  Jimmy didn't think of any moral principles or theories why he couldn't get mixed up in this, not the law or the way society was put together.  He thought about how Mrs. Wheeler had helped him out getting a library card and he didn't want her to be angry with him.  As silly as that sounds, that's the way he felt about it.  There wasn't any principle to observe and obey.  Just Mrs. Wheeler and the fact that she had just got over being angry with him for something he had done and he did not want her to get angry at him again.
    "Besides, why should you ever have to see her again?  Even if she does happen to spot me, which I would be stupid to let happen.  Give me the key and take the money and run.  Come on, last chance, I've got to go."
    Neal picked up, rolled eyes, turned around a couple of times, head to tail, dropped down, yawned and curled up and eyed Jimmy amused, as if to say, "Come on, Podnah, you can't figure this one out?"
    Jimmy thought: somehow this seems so far away from everything that is real!  And the more I think about it the less real it seems.  Of course, that's the way it is with your errors, you don't run into these situations every day so they never seem quite real.  They seem more real the more often you run into them.  He quickly calculated how long he could hang out in the big woods on three grand.  Then suddenly he decided that he didn't want that, he didn't want to hide out, he wanted to figure out something to do.  It just made more sense.  That was as far as he got with it.  It just made more sense to worry what Mrs. Wheeler would think.
    "Okay," the man said, who had just robbed a bank, but who didn't look like you'd think an evil person would look like, who didn't look like anything different.  "Now's my chance.  Gotta go."  Then he was gone round the corner toward the subway station.
    In those few seconds Jimmy had become bathed with sweat.  His face was red and bloated.  Neal mirthfully eyed him and said, "Please don't bother to tell me that was hard."
    "That was hard, I wish I knew why.  If ever there was a ditch to jump in, that was it.  And where were you, good buddy?  Where were the acrobatics, the run around?"  When Neal was trying to get Jimmy's attention, he often jumped up and did crazy run arounds.
    "Why?  You didn't need me, and there was no hope for that guy.  He was in way too deep."
    "Isn't it awful to think that you might get stuck on something that is no good for you?  I mean the idea of it, and not be able to let it go?"
    "That's why dogs say their prayers, you know, 'deliver me from evil'.  Any dog will tell you, sometimes you can't do it alone."
    A few minutes later Jimmy managed to calm himself, and he said in a soft voice, "Let's get out of here."  He thought he might be able to walk it off but he never did.  Not in his whole life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Data Lies and Longings

I have not been reading two books lately. One is Mimesis by Eric Auerbach, the other is Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) was a very great American Philosopher, perhaps the greatest American philosopher who ever lived, at least in my opinion. Though ignored in his life time, exiled by academia, nowadays he is much studied. Societies have been named in his honor. Great scholars have turned their attention to him and his ideas have been much debated and written about. Eric Auerbach wrote his famous book in Istanbul. The fact that it is a classic book as is Peirce's book above means nothing to my purpose here. But neither of these two books, though I have owned them for a year, have I read at all, which has caused me to think a lot about why you read one book and ignore another. Or why you do read one author and do not read another.

Both of these books include classic writings by timeless authors. They are books demanding any student's attention. Scholars and learned men and women, and people like myself who aspire toward wisdom will be reading these books years, maybe centuries, from now. Both have the science imparted to people who have studied long and hard and who have given to their study reasoning. I wonder if either of them thought of their study as work? I remember Balzac complaining about work. His only complaint was why he was so often disturbed from it! I doubt that what he was doing with such obsessive concentration he personally would think of as work. The reader might think of the reading as work, especially if assigned as school work, or the reader of Balzac, though enjoying the reading of his own free will, might think of Balzac's oeuvre as works. But I wonder if Balzac himself would be inclined to think of himself as a worker doing work. Ditto, I believe, Auerbach and Peirce. And why should study of any great author be listed in the category work?

When the head is as if mesmerized by a startling phrase and evidence of unlikely or novel comprehension and insight, how can that be work? Work has more to do with the humdrum and the routine than the novel and the startling. The books above may be termed by some, not me, as difficult, or hard reading. Peirce may at times be hard to make sense of, but why should that be a reason not to read his book? If a poet, for instance, like Elliot, is difficult to get through at times, you insult yourself if you say, "Oh, I don't feel like wading through that right now." Who would not be embarrassed to think such a thought? I know it will be my pleasure at some time to study both these books in order to shamble down the path toward wisdom. But not now.

So I might as well admit what I have been reading, if only to get it over with promptly. Instead of these worthy authors above I have been reading a book not by a great novelist or even a great writer, but by a wandering writer and singer of songs, Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory.

The book has the advantage of not being on the list of assigned reading in school. It's a gift to lovers of books that comes without elaboration. Being non-academic in style, it won't stand still in a handbasket of overwriting but forges onward energetically in disinterest of tenure and do re mi. Woody was pure, a free spirit. Where do people like that come from?

It's just a book. You might call it a novelistic dramatization of an autobiography. Woody was a prolific writer of songs and poems and stories, and then in New York in the 40's he wrote this book. It was edited quite a bit, I think the word was "heavily". The Okie twang got lacquered over by the New York types, though not buried. It's still there, sort of. (My personal research has not turned up a printing of the original manuscript before they got to it. Go here for some good sounding twang. Its total lack of falseness eases the spirit.) Every sentence in the book has the zest of sensual detail that is truthful sensual detail. This is one book whose narrative style does not depend on abstraction. Woody is Woody. Although the author might say the Woody in the book is an abstraction about Woody Guthrie, in which case Woody would not be Woody Guthrie, I do not think that he would say any such thing. Too complicated, for one. When authors tell stories and fill books with them, it is their choice to write about what really happened, or not. In fact an author may write about what really happened all the while denying it and still write a good book. A book of stories may not have anything at all to do with objective data. Just so happens I am in the mood for objective data.

Suppose the story is about a subjective, highly personalized environment, a world somewhere between data (science) and faith that the author happens to be interested in. This world might be meaningful to someone else than the author, or it might be worth nothing at all, no matter how lovingly tragic or comic. So what do I mean by this and who cares? If you like a book, it keeps you busy and involved for x number of hours that could have been miserable otherwise, who cares whether it is truthful? That's like saying horses shouldn't race because racing is bad for horses. You'll still read literature whether it is a commotion and a big argument with God or not, and if you do make it, you'll make it because you hope it contains original thinking, and that is, after all, the golden fleece. Bound for Glory has made me think about this more than any other book of the twentieth century. Just a damned little autobiographic book about barefoot boy growing up in Oklahoma. Woody Guthrie was a pure font of drinkable water rising from the stones such as has not been found since the holy days. And about time America knows it. You don't have ta go to Europe for wisdom.

Now, ten years ago I read this book without much interest the same as I read other books without much interest. So what happened? Did I grow up, or did I grow down? The same thing happened between me and another great writer, Isaac Babel. I somehow ended up with Red Cavalry when I was still in high school, didn't think much of it for almost thirty years, then the book suddenly swelled over me. Red Cavalry is a war book, but Bound for Glory is not necessarily a war book. Another book I like a lot is Ceremony of Innocence. But the book is written by a person, Timothy Victor Richardson, I know pretty well, though not as one knows a friend, still I dare not say how great I think the book is. But I can say I am looking forward to reading it many times again before I die. I ran across it by happy accident. Usually I am not lucky. Someday I will quit writing but for now what's wrong with writing? Maybe a race horse can't race but he can't quit either, and so what is it to you, mister?

This is what I think. I think there is in literature a battle between concrete data and abstraction. Sometimes the battle goes one way, sometimes another. Lots of times dead bodies litter the battle field and one side or the other is retaking ground that has been lost and won before. Some times are for philosophy and criticism like the above, Auerbach and Peirce. They know plenty of raw data, don't get me wrong, but they "style" it in generalization. That is: certain effects which are predominant characteristics of the data are fused in the abstraction process in such a way that the data is generalized. The result is a re-creation of the data into a less personal and more understandable form. Nobody is lying. Anybody can tell a lie. Talking heads are everywhere, and you know them by the glitter in their teeth. Nobody who cares about the written word can possibly use words to lie with. They may approach the words differently, as if with a different battle in mind, but it is a killing task to use them for other than truth.

It goes along through history that a story is a fascinating lie. And only lies are entertaining. The theory goes that if a story was a bare recital of straight facts, then it would be uninteresting. Suppose I say "I want to define pride." A guy I know is acting like a know it all for some reason. And I go on to give numerous examples of actions that seem to show that he is prideful when in fact he has nothing to be prideful about. His attitude is incorrect and I can prove it by describing his beliefs and his actions. I don't have to say anything. Just describe and continue the story. So if I see that as my job, sketch along the lines of a scientific (characterizing) study, where are the lies? Since I am as I am going along dealing at all times with scientific exposition of factual data along the lines of a preconceived demonstration, then how can anyone say I am lying? I first describe the issue, then I describe both factual data and, perhaps some imaginative data, all the while adhering to the prescribed circumference of my study, where is the lie? Even imaginative data cannot be considered to be lying if it is in the middle of the theme. The trouble is how the hell do you define a theme? I have been trying for the last 40 years to come up with an obsessive idea, for example "What is freedom?" In other words, what does it mean to be free? Also I have wanted to place the one idea against the other and allow them to fight each other to the death in even, fair battle. But I have never been able to proceed that way. For instance: I am thinking about a sketch in which a woman goes to a mental hospital to take her daughter out on an outing. They finally stop at a fair and they proceed to have a good time with each other playing fair games. The mental hospital is such a place where you wonder what they have in mind, as mental hospitals often are. The mental hospital is eerie, and the daughter doesn't like it and the mother doesn't like it, and even the boyfriend is wondering what he is doing there, as they bring the kid back. But ultimately I do not know what that means. It is not enough to start from square one and proceed along without a meaningful direction. Artists are artists because they hate lies, and they understand what nobody else does.

Art is full of portents, not lies. What I really want to do, whether in reading or writing, is get into something that will stand me for a long time. But why wouldn't any story do; as long as you are taking the time to think. But there is thinking and there is thinking. Isn't there? Salinger's thinking was good for a time, now Woody Guthrie's thinking is better. I got tired of Holden, don't think any longer he is quite real. Plato was all right, he stood me for a long time. Job was worth thinking about. Thinking about what is for supper is not the same as thinking how there can be error in a world made by a God who is supposed to be perfect. Sometimes I have characters at the edge of my brain, just behind the eyes. I swear they are more real than the real persons I know, but do I have the right to treat them as real? I don't know. Then it will be a lie, and how many times have we been through this territory? A thousand? You have to rise above all this doubt. Reaching for beauty and wisdom is not like reaching for a tasty lunch. Or even searching out the character of the fool who lives next door. I give up. Who the hell wants to spend the rest of his life writing about some figments of his imagination? Bullshit can't be how it goes. Don't seem like to me Woody ever even thought these dark suspicious thoughts. They must come from Europe or somewhere.

You read one book and not another, whether right or wrong, because it fulfills a longing. Best stay open minded then, because longings shift like the wind.