The Book of Truth     

Truth and falsehood are posed as dichotomous and linked to the binary of good and evil. But in seeking truth how far do we wander from home?

Thoreau in Walden, Dylan Thomas in the boathouse, many in a caravan - every writer needs that private retreat. But is it home?

About the Book

It's been said that your bookshelf is a map of your inner life.

All those titles and covers and spines, mostly facing the right way so you can locate something, but maybe not. Maybe chaos and loving disorder, or frustration, or the incredible waste of a precious wage spent on something you never read, not cover to cover anyway.

How many of your books are novels? How many are text books? Fantasies, atlases, dictionaries, poetry, magazines bound and loose?

Why, in our culture, is the novel privileged? I've just been reading Orhan Pamuck's The Innocence of Objects (it's not on my bookshelf, it lies around all over the house, wherever I happen to have recently been - which is a documentary of his creation of a Museum to embody his novel The Museum of Innocence. The question constantly unanswered is this - which of these is actually a novel? Where is his fiction, where is the truth?

Do novels mean more because of the environment in which they were created? Can literature stand entirely by itself, unsupported by its unique context?

Scholars of great writers point to the historical context of their work, the external factors that shaped their themes, but what about the very space around them, what they happened to gaze out at as they paused their fingers to think?

By the way, if the pages here don't display properly just resize your window slightly and the screen should jump to attention. I didn't design this from scratch, it's adapted from work by Codrops. The javascript for the flipping is under their copyright.

So, this book . . .

The idea is to collect in the one place, easily accessible to me or to those lucky enough to know about it, a library of short writings that somehow tell the truth about things that tend be confused, unknown or obscure. Things that if understood might help us to better move with grace through a life of darkening disappointment, to maintain our curiosity about the way of the world itself.

Short, necessarily, because the medium of the internet tends to be "fast" not slow. The Slow Web idea is in the same sense as slow food, and can be found in many places: iDoneThis, a dedicated website, or Jack Cheng's blog. I'd rather be part of the slow web movement than shoot for instant gratification, but I am still bound by the constraints of time. The Book of Truth actually takes a long time to write and might never be finished.

Many of these articles were first cut from newspapers and magazines, some of them thirty five years ago. My wife was driven crazy by my obsession with trawling the daily papers looking for articles on politics and social justice. We had yellowing stacks all over the living room and along the walls of our bedroom. Then I started photocopying them and pasting the copies artistically into scrapbooks. Nowadays I tend to find the source on the web.

So there's politics, philosophy, history, love, tragedy, economics, war and peace. I hope the Book of Truth tells a useful story.

The Default Country

But few of the human race die of old age. Besides the thousand and one diseases flesh is heir to, and the disease which Mrs. O'Flannagan said her husband died of, viz., "Of a Saturday 'tis that poor Mike died," very many die of disappointment. More _fret_ out. Mr. Beecher said, "It is the fretting that wears out the machinery; friction, not the real wear."

"Choked with passion" is no chimera; for passion often kills the unfortunate possessor of an irritable temper, sometimes suddenly. Care and over-anxiety sweep away thousands annually.

Let us see how long a man should live. The horse lives twenty-five years; the ox fifteen or twenty; the lion about twenty; the dog ten or twelve; the rabbit eight; the guinea-pig six or seven years. These numbers all bear a similar proportion to the time the animal takes to grow to its full size. But man, of all animals, is the one that seldom comes up to his average. He ought to live a hundred years, according to this physiological law, for five times twenty are one hundred; but instead of that, he scarcely reaches, on the average, four times his growing period; the cat six times; and the rabbit even eight times the standard of measurement. The reason is obvious. Man is not only the most irregular and the most intemperate, but the most laborious and hard-worked of all animals. He is also the most irritable of all animals; and there is reason to believe, though we cannot tell what an animal secretly feels, that, more than any other animal, man cherishes wrath to keep it warm, and consumes himself with the fire of his secret reflections.

"Age dims the lustre of the eye, and pales the roses on beauty's cheek; while crows' feet, and furrows, and wrinkles, and lost teeth, and gray hairs, and bald head, and tottering limbs, and limping, most sadly mar the human form divine. But dim as the eye is, pallid and sunken as may be the face of beauty, and frail and feeble that once strong, erect, and manly body, the immortal soul, just fledging its wings for its home in heaven, may look out through those faded windows as beautiful as the dewdrop of summer's morning, as melting as the tears that glisten in affection's eye, by growing kindly, by cultivating sympathy with all human kind, by cherishing forbearance towards the follies and foibles of our race, and feeding, day by day, on that love to God and man which lifts us from the brute, and makes us akin to angels."

From "The Funny Side of Physic" by A. D. Crabtre

I Don't Know

The writing's always on a wall somewhere

Again the longest day was past. The days were getting shorter - it was still barely noticeable but we knew it was happening, this summer too would pass.

Again the day came to an end, again the bright red above the horizon grew pale, the water in the distance kept its color, but barely, darkness crept up everywhere out of the earth, now the far canal had vanished in the night.

We were gloomy about all the things that had passed, and about our lives, which would end while all these things continued to exist. We would see the days get longer a few more times, then we wouldn't be young anymore. And after that, when the chestnut trees had blossomed red or white a few more times, we would die, in the primes of our lives or maybe as old men, which would be even worse. And the sky would be red again and the canal would still be there too, most likely, gold in the twilight, and they wouldn't notice any difference.

And with that sad eloquence the Dutch writer Nescio, still then young and not yet successful as a businessman, voiced the deepest premonition we all grapple with in our fleeting youth - that we don't really matter and that the world goes on without us.

"Nescio", Latin for "I don't know", was the pseudonym of Dutch writer Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. Born in 1882 in Amsterdam, he wrote a small number of short stories and died in 1961. Most of his published work dates from 1911-18. His reputation is barely recognised outside the Netherlands.

Nescio's most notable works are The Freeloader, Little Titans and The Little Poet. They all deal with the tentative hopes of quiet young men who Add connection Galeano - death end - always reborn?

The quote is from "Amsterdam Stories" by Nescio

Stranger than friction

Several kings and great lords are made mention of as being particularly fond of using the lancet. Peter the Great of Russia was remarkably fond of witnessing dissections and surgical operations. He even used to carry a case of instruments in his pocket. He often visited the hospitals to witness capital operations, at times assisting in person, and was able to dissect properly, to bleed a patient, and extract a tooth as well as one of the faculty.

The pretty wife of one of the czar's valets had the following unpleasant experience of his skill. The husband of the "maid" accused her of flirting, and vowed revenge. The czar noticed the valet seated in the ante-room, looking forlorn, and asked the cause of his dejection. The wicked valet replied that his wife had a tooth which gave her great pain, keeping them both awake day and night, but would not have it drawn.

"Send her to me," said the czar.

The woman was brought, but persisted in affirming that her teeth were sound, and never ached. The valet alleged that this was always the way she did when the physician was called; therefore, in spite of her cries and remonstrances, the king ordered her husband to hold her head between his knees, when the czar drew out his instruments and instantly extracted the tooth designated by the husband, disregarding the cries of the unfortunate victim.

In a few days the czar was informed that the thing was a put-up job by the jealous husband, in order to punish, if not mar the beauty of, his gallant wife, whereupon the instruments were again brought into requisition; and this time the naughty valet was the sufferer, to the extent of losing a sound and valuable tooth.

From "The Funny Side of Physic" by A. D. Crabtre

As the sun shines

From that excellent work, "Scenes in the Practice of a New York Surgeon," by Dr. E. H. Dixon, I copy, with some abbreviation, the following, which the author terms "Leaves from the Log-book of an Unfledged Æsculapian:"--

"In the year 1830 I was sent forth, like our long-suffering and much-abused prototype,--old father Noah's crow,--from the ark of safety, the old St. Duane Street College. I pitched my tent, and set up my trap, in what was then a fashionable up-town street.

"I hired a modest house, and had my arm-chair, my midnight couch, and my few books in my melancholy little office, and I confess that I now and then left an amputating-knife, or some other awful-looking instrument, on the table, to impress the poor women who came to me for advice.

"These little matters, although the 'Academy' would frown upon them, I considered quite pardonable. God knows I would willingly have adopted their most approved method of a splendid residence, and silver-mounted harnesses for my bays; but they were yet in dream-land, eating moonbeams, and my vicious little nag had nearly all this time to eat his oats and nurse his bad temper in his comfortable stable.

"In this miserable way I read over my old books, watered my rose-bushes,--sometimes with tears,--drank my tea and ate my toast, and occasionally listened to the complaint of an unfortunate Irish damsel, with her customary account of 'a pain in me side an' a flutterin' about me heart.' At rare intervals I ministered to some of her countrywomen in their fulfilment of the great command when placed in the Garden of Eden. (What a dirty place it would have been if inhabited by Irish women!)

"And thus I spent nearly a year without a single call to any person of character. I think I should have left in despair if it had not been for a lovely creature up the street. She was the wife of a distinguished fish merchant down town.

"This lovely woman was Mrs. Mackerel. I will explain how it was that I was summoned to her ladyship's mansion, and had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Mackerel, of the firm of 'Mackerel, Haddock & Dun.'

"One bitter cold night in January, just as I was about to retire, a furious ring at the front door made me feel particularly amiable! A servant announced the sudden and alarming illness of Mrs. Mackerel, with the assurance that as the family physician was out of town, Mrs. M. would be obliged if I would immediately visit her. Accordingly, I soon found myself in the presence of the accomplished lady, having--I confess it--given my hair an extra touch as I entered the beautiful chamber.

"Mrs. Mackerel was not a bad-tempered lady; she was only a beautiful fool--nothing less, dear reader, or she would have never married old Mackerel. Her charms would have procured her a husband of at least a tolerable exterior. His physiognomy presented a remarkable resemblance to his namesake. Besides, he chewed and smoked, and the combination of the aroma of his favorite luxuries with the articles of his merchandise must have been most uncongenial to the curve of such lips and such nostrils as Mrs. Mackerel's.

"I was received by Mr. Mackerel in a manner that increased observation has since taught me is sufficiently indicative of the hysterical _finale_ of a domestic dialogue. He was not so obtuse as to let me directly into the true cause of his wife's nervous attack and his own collectedness, and yet he felt it would not answer to make too light of it before me.

"Mr. and Mrs. M. had just returned from a party. (The party must be the 'scape-goat'!) He assured me that as the lady was in the full enjoyment of health previously, he felt obliged to attribute the cause of her attack and speechless condition--for she spoke not one word, or gave a sign--to the dancing, heated room, and the supper.

"I was fully prepared to realize the powers of ice-cream, cake, oranges, chicken-salad, oysters, sugar-plums, punch, and champagne, and at one moment almost concluded to despatch a servant for an emetic of ipecac; but--I prudently avoided it. Aside from the improbability of excess of appetite through the portal of such a mouth, the lovely color of the cheeks and lips utterly forbade a conclusion favorable to Mr. Mackerel's solution of the cause.

"I placed my finger on her delicate and jewelled wrist. All seemed calm as the thought of an angel's breast!

"I was nonplussed. 'Could any tumultuous passion ever have agitated that bosom so gently swelling in repose?'

"Mackerel's curious questions touching my sagacity as to his wife's condition received about as satisfactory a solution as do most questions put to me on the cause and treatment of diseases; and having tolerably befogged him with opinions, and lulled his suspicions to rest, by the apparent innocent answers to his leading questions, he arrived at the conclusion most desirable to him, viz., that I was a fool--a conviction quite necessary in some nervous cases....

"So pleased was Mr. M. with the soothing influences of my brief visit that he very courteously waited on me to the outside door, instead of ordering a servant to show me out, and astonished me by desiring me to call on the patient again in the morning.

"After my usual diversion of investigating 'a pain an' a flutterin' about me heart,' and an 'O, I'm kilt intirely,' I visited Mrs. Mackerel, and had the extreme pleasure of finding her quite composed, and in conversation with her fashionable friend, Mrs. Tiptape. The latter was the daughter of a 'retired milliner,' and had formed a desirable union with Tiptape, the eminent dry goods merchant. Fortunately--for she was a woman of influence--I passed the critical examination of Mrs. T. unscathed by her sharp black eyes, and, as the sequel will show, was considered by her 'quite an agreeable person.'

"Poor Mrs. Mackerel, notwithstanding her efforts to conceal it, had evidently received some cruel and stunning communication from her husband on the night of my summons; her agitated circulation during the fortnight of my attendance showed to my conviction some persistent and secret cause for her nervousness.

"One evening she assured me that she felt she should now rapidly recover, as Mr. Mackerel had concluded to take her to Saratoga. I, of course, acquiesced in the decision, though my previous opinion had not been asked. I took a final leave of the lovely woman, and the poor child soon departed for Saratoga.

"The ensuing week there was a sheriff's sale at Mackerel's residence. The day following the Mackerels' departure, Mr. Tiptape did me the honor to inquire after the health of my family; and a week later, Master Tiptape having fallen and bumped his dear nose on the floor, I had the felicity of soothing the anguish of his mamma in her magnificent _boudoir_, and holding to her lovely nose the smelling salts, and offering such consolation as her trying position required!"

Thus was commenced the practice of one of the first physicians of New York. The facts are avouched for. The names, of course, are manufactured, to cover the occupation of the parties. The doctor still lives, in the enjoyment of a lucrative and respectable practice, and the love and confidence of his numerous friends and patrons.

Quite as ludicrous scenes could be revealed by most physicians, if they would but take the time to think over their earlier efforts, and the various circumstances which were mainly instrumental in getting them into a respectable practice.

From "The Funny Side of Physic" by A. D. Crabtre

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