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Posts by Robert Armitage

The Subversive Bernard Shaw

Our laws make law impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; our wisdom is administered by inexperienced or malexperienced dupes; our power wielded by cowards or weaklings; and our honour  false in all its points.  I am an enemy of the existing order for good reasons...                              Preface to Major Barbara In my recent reading of Michael Holroyd’s biography,

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Travis McGee

I get this crazy feeling. Every once in a while I get it. I get the feeling that this is the last time in history when the offbeats like me will have a chance to live free in the nooks and crannies of the huge and rigid structure of an increasingly codified society. Fifty years from now I would be hunted down in the street. They would drill little holes in my skull and make me sensible and reliable and adjusted.   [The Quick Red Fox, 1964]

I remember a vacation I took with my parents during my early 

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In the Bleak Midwinter: 2010 Book List

(Click on winter scenes to enlarge) In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago. —Christina Rossetti As I write this, the temperature is about 60 degrees and winter would seem to be over—although I don’t want to jinx anything by being premature.

But it clearly was a bleak midwinter, not too long ago, and for weeks on end the apt words of the Christina 

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Other Places, Other Times: Claire Messud, Wilkie Collins, Sally Gunning

The best fiction provides its own social and cultural context.  Plots unfold and characters engage one another against a background more alive than would be possible even in the most detailed nonfiction study of a particular era.  This is the level akin to time travel, where we can step into the sights, sounds, moods, and attitudes of the past and measure that past against our own fleeting present moments.  Fact is one thing, experience another.

Most fiction, of course, is grounded in period and setting; but I have recently read three unrelated novels 

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Raymond Chandler as Literature?

"She's a grifter, shamus. I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel." —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Do you remember the tropical storm of October 1?  Winds howling, sky boiling like a pot of dirty oatmeal, rain sluicing down?  What a good day it would have been to huddle at home in slippers and robe, brew a pot of tea, and curl up with a mystery novel.  And yet, on that nasty afternoon, a number of ardent mystery fans donned their rain gear and ventured out into the maelstrom to attend the first presentation of 

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Words or Music, Part 3: Romeo and Juliet and The Age of Aquarius

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I saw the Broadway production of Hair, in one of the last performances before that show’s closing.  The following Wednesday evening, I went to a local movie theatre to catch the Metropolitan Opera’s encore HD presentation of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.  Ever since then, both events have become intertwined in my brain, one reflecting the other like a series of tiny mirrors.

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"You're gonna need a bigger boat." A Movie Quiz

For over two years now, as a blogger for the New York Public Library, I’ve written about books: as entertainment, as the foundations of personal identity, as reflections of the past, as physical artifacts, even as dust-collectors in an overcrowded apartment.   Today, however, I would like to celebrate another aspect of the library’s universe: its circulating DVD collection, which any avid cinephile would have to regard as one of the city’s great free resources.

As well as being a long-term employee of the library, I am also an eager and 

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James Bond, The Brain Stealers, and The Call of the Wild

The constant visitor, Main Children's Room, 1914Where does your inner voice come from--the chattering that goes on inside your head all day long, well into the night, and on and on for year upon year, sometimes soothing, frequently criticizing, often yearning, forever evaluating?  Consciousness is an echo chamber made up of many things, where bits of experience accumulate like sediment, adding layer upon layer.  Especially influential, at least from the librarian’s point of view, are the books gobbled up in childhood and the adolescent years.

Many of 

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Cheever Country

“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”

—From the Journals of John Cheever, 1966 entry

While I was moving from Manhattan to Westchester, I did not need the voice of John Cheever singing in my head.  There might be a time for suburban ennui, discontent, and yearning, but this was not it.   After all, in an article for the July 1960

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Selecting Books

"Literate people appropriate all the best things they can find in books, and dress themselves in them just as certain crabs are supposed to beautify themselves with seaweed."  — Herzog, Saul Bellow

'Selecting Books' - NYPL Digital GalleryHow do you decide what to read next?  With the literature of the world and of the ages spread before you, how do you choose?

Do well-meaning friends push their favorites on you, as if you wouldn’t sooner jump down a well than read what 

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King Kong

Most adult men are just shells designed to contain twelve-year-old boys.

Why else would someone who should have better things to do with his time be bothering about the 1933 Hollywood film King Kong?  I’ve probably seen thousands of movies since my first encounter with Kong, including the classics of world cinema: the Bergmans, Fellinis, and Kurosowas.  Citizen Kane comes seeping out of my pores.

What, then, is different about King 

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Literary Memories of an Ex-Manhattanite

After thirty-four years of living in Manhattan, I’m left with a lot of memories, crackling in my head like dried-up autumn leaves.

I was born in Brooklyn and spent all of my adult years in Manhattan (first on the Upper West Side and then in Stuyvesant Town) except for one curious, Alice in Wonderland sort of year in Astoria, Queens. Recently, however, my wife and I packed our few sticks of furniture and scraps of clothing (like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath) and moved to Westchester, proving that there is always a new page 

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A Passion for Real Books

More and more, I find my library colleagues coming to me and singing the praises of their e-book readers. From pockets, briefcases, or knapsacks they draw a tiny glowing gadget---as nifty as Captain Kirk’s phaser--and proceed to demonstrate its multiple virtues. A whole book can be downloaded in seconds. You can carry an entire library in a tiny, plastic box. With a book on your iPhone, you can use one finger to slide from screen to screen, never having to turn an actual page again. These exchanges with my colleagues inevitably remind me of that scene in the original

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Some Thoughts on Shirley Jackson

"The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock" — from "The Lottery"

Shirley JacksonI had an encounter at the library a few weeks ago which returned Shirley Jackson to the forefront of my thoughts.

She is always there, one way or another. Some writers never loosen their grip on you. Especially those discovered during your formative years, when the brain is at its most absorbent, and reading can still seem a transformative experience. I remember the exact moment when I encountered Shirley Jackson’s 

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Invitation to "Elusive Jane"

["You must allow me to present this young lady to you."]

Over the past few weeks, my blogging voice seems to have evaporated from this site. That’s not because I’ve slipped into some eerie library limbo. My time and energies have instead been devoted to preparing a public presentation, “Elusive Jane: In Search of Jane Austen at the New York Public Library.” For ages, it seems, my desk has been buried under a small mountain of books by and about Jane Austen, necessitating a major excavation every time I needed a pencil or a piece of tape. But the hard part is over, and 

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Natural Rhythms

The first time I visited Cape Cod, a city boy unaccustomed to the ways of the natural world, I encountered what seemed to me one of the primal mysteries, the secret from which so much else in life sprang. Although I have witnessed this phenomenon again and again over the past twenty or so years, it mystifies me still. During that first trip, my wife and I made an initial foray to the beach on Cape Cod Bay and looked out across the magnificent body of water held in the cup of land stretching from Bourne to Provincetown and marked 

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Elusive Jane: In Search of Jane Austen at the New York Public Library

Maybe the resemblance is not the most accurate or truthful. The family seemed to think it was not a success. According to R. W. Chapman, when James Edward Austen-Leigh decided to include an etching of the portrait in his memoir, his sister, half-sister, and cousins gave it only “very guarded and qualified approval.” Although it “was not positively inconsistent with their youthful recollections,” they seemed to think that “perhaps it gave some idea of the truth.” Despite their reservations, the actual penciled work with its Read More ›

The Historical Perspective

I recently wrote about an old favorite of mine, the fantasy novel Time and Again, by Jack Finney. It is the story of a man who travels back in time to New York in the 1800s. Once there, the story is compelling, precise in its details, and completely believable, the only far-fetched element being his actual methodology for returning to the past--he looks at old pictures and sort of thinks himself back through time. At least I thought this was far-fetched, until I got a look at the photographs I’ve reproduced 

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"The Young Visiters"

"Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him.”

— Opening of The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

Who can remember what childhood was really like? Who would really want to? What comes back to me of childhood are a few hazy outlines, like half-remembered snippets of dreams glimpsed just before awakening and quickly forgotten. As a child, I’m sure I knew that the world around me was a very real place and that I was indisputably its center, but I somehow can’t recapture the innocence of a 

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Adaptation

"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me"

— Shakespeare, Richard II

This month marks my one-year anniversary as a blogger for the New York Public Library. A blogger is something I never thought I would refer to myself as, but I suppose there are worse things that can be said about a person. My first post on May 30, 2008 concerned the release of Sex and the City, a movie which featured the library among its New York 

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