Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”


Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?


Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff!

Books, wrote Milton in Areopagitica  “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” To destroy a book is to destroy thought itself, a crime nearly equal to that of killing a man. A book has a life as “active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” To what extent, though, do the lives of books ever truly separate from the lives of their authors? Don Quixote, argued by some to be the greatest novel ever written, may give us some insights.

Early in Part 1, a curate and a barber purge Don Quixote’s library of the dangerous books that have led him to believe that he was a knight-errant. (It occurs to me that at the time a barber would have also been a surgeon, so why should he not be the one to “cure” Don Quixote by surgically removing the cause of his illness?) Throughout the comical scene of these two passing judgement on books, they show the strength of Milton’s claims. The very idea of destroying “dangerous” books only makes sense if one believes that there is a great potency in them. Further, the books are discussed as if they are people, e.g. “we must condemn him to the fire.” The curate and the barber are reverse of Milton; they recognize the immense power and independent personalities of books, but they conclude that books must be censored where Milton concludes that they must not.

But the curate and the barber do not strictly separate the personality of the books from their authors. By the end of their inquisition, they become weary and lazy. They begin to mix judgments of the books with judgments of the authors: “Let him be kept, both because the author is my very great friend, and in regard of other more heroical and lofty works he hath written.” So the judges are willing to spare some books, not because of their content, but because of their authors. I suspect that this inconsistency is meant to show a flaw of their methods. If the book is dangerous, how can it matter who wrote it? So the curate and the barber are bad judges at best, and, more likely, totally backwards in their thinking. Books really do have a life independent of their authors.

Don Quixote is an attractive subject for this sort of study for another reason. Supposedly, Don Quixote, Part 1 was published with no intent of their being a second part. The story is complete and deeply satisfying, with no need for further adventures. However, Cervantes wrote in a time without intellectual property law. The character of Don Quixote was so popular, that other authors wrote their own adventures for the man of La Mancha. (The same thing, incidentally, happened with the character Sherlock Holmes.) Cervantes, unhappy to see his character appearing in other writers’ works, published Part 2 as the definitive final adventure of Don Quixote.

Proponents of strong intellectual property law claim that without it, inventors will not invent and writers will not write. But Cervantes continued to write, even after his character was employed elsewhere. Charles Dickens was not protected by IP law, but he still made a living. Once an idea is out in the world, it has its own life. How can the author expect to keep that life reined in?


Beer of the week: Duff Beer – Speaking of intellectual property, the makers of this beer have had to spend a lot of time in court fighting for the right to use the name and logo of Homer Simpson’s drink of choice. Surely an American company that tried this would lose the fight, but this beer is German, and Europeans love sticking it to America almost as much as they love protected place names. The beer itself probably isn’t too different from what the Simpsons creators had in mind. It really is a very ordinary mass-produced beer. The only hint that this is really a cheap German lager instead of a cheap American lager is that there is no hint of corn or rice in the flavor and there is a little bit of hoppy dryness in the finish, maybe even a touch of grass. I overpaid just because of the name, but if this were priced the same as beers of similar quality, I could definitely see my way to imitating Homer and drinking a lot of it.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – The curate and the barber put together a mock auto-da-fé for the dangerous books in Don Quixote’s library. The scene is very comical. I particularly like when the curate laughs at the naive old woman who suggests blessing the library with holy water, only to replace blessing-with-water with purging-by-fire.

Question of the week: If a book has a life of its own, isn’t strong IP law a form of slavery? Shouldn’t ideas be free to work wherever they might be of most use?

Of Supply and Demand

When traveling abroad, one often finds that everyday items are really luxuries. The laws of supply and demand are universal, and it is amazing how much money people will spend on something that they would usually take for granted. Among other staggering valuations, I have seen substantial price-tags on peanut butter, asparagus, and cheese. Not even fancy French cheese, stuff that was a few steps above “American Singles“. A very common response to those prices is, “that’s way more than that product is worth!” But does that statement have any meaning?

The problem that people so often have is that they get the idea that the commonly accepted price is the real value of something. “San Miguel can be had for pennies in Manila, so it is not worth $5 here.” That sort of thinking is simply not sound. Items don’t have a set value. The value of anything is determined by supply and demand, and since supply and demand constantly vary, values constantly vary. If San Miguel costs more in one place than in another, it is because the markets support different costs.

An important thing to remember as the consumer is that your willingness to pay (along with the willingness of everybody else) is the demand. If you think something is too expensive, you are right. But if you complain that something is too expensive and you still buy it, it wasn’t really too expensive, was it? On a clear day, I may tell you that Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor is not worth buying at any price. Yet, in a moment of weakness, I may actually make the same purchase that I’ve regretted again and again. At the time of purchase, though, I clearly think that the beer is worth more than the money I am giving up. Otherwise, the sale would never happen.

To be sure, in retrospect we often feel ripped off. For example, if I knew how awful that Brazilian beer was, I would never have paid so much for it. But what I am talking about here is the asking price for a known good. Now I think that Brazilian beer really is too expensive, but only too expensive for me.  For anybody who happens to actually like it and is willing to buy it at that price, it is worth every penny. All transactions in a market economy happen because both the buyer and the seller think that they are getting the better end of the deal.


Beer of the Week: Bass Ale – Bass was once a go-to beer for me. It is a pretty amber beer with a good malt body and a very comforting flavor. However, this batch was brewed in New York and it is not what I remember or expect from Bass. Compared to my memory, this American version is sweeter. It also has a hint of sourness from the grains, like sourdough bread. It may still be above average for large-batch American beer, but I am disappointed.

Reading for the Week: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – Simply because Jerome could not get any mustard, he was suddenly willing to trade everything he had and more for a single spoonful. He had witnessed this supply and demand problem before: “I heard a man, going up a mountain in Switzerland, once say he would give worlds for a glass of beer, and, when he came to a little shanty where they kept it, he kicked up a most fearful row because they charged him five francs for a bottle of Bass.”

Question for the Week: In a way, Three Men in a Boat is really about conspicuous consumption:  a group of friends go on a boating holiday with the (unstated and probably subconscious) intention to display their affluence and social standing by engaging in costly leisure. At what point do things become more desirable because of the apparent disconnect between their price and their “real” value? Are larger natural diamonds actually worth more because they have fewer practical applications?

Of Memory and Destiny

Education, formal education, usually stops in one’s early twenties. There are those who achieve advanced degrees and, if they are fortunate, remain involved in formal education for the rest of their lives. The life of the student is somewhat glorified in my mind. My love of learning is so deep that I can scarcely imagine a better life than that of a professional learner of things. Recently, however, I have made attempts to see the value of a life beyond books. As Alexei Fyodorovich said in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”

Memory preserves us. A memory of goodness and warmth can protect us from straying from the right path. Above all, the reason that memory is a good education is the reason that all education is good: it prepares us for whatever the future might hold.

Dostoevsky isn’t advocating a life of nostalgia, but a life guided by deeply embedded principles. The man with good and cherished memories doesn’t pine for what he has lost, but he sees in his memory all of the good things of which he is capable. Karamazov tells us that the man with but a single cherished memory “will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!'” And that memory will remind him that he can still be so good and so brave and so honest.

Look back at your greatest moments and reflect on all the greatness that may yet lie before you. All you must do is remember how good you can be. “Don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!”


Beer of the Week: Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor – As it turns out, Mickey’s Malt Liquor is what you should drink if you don’t want to remember. The distinction between beer and malt liquor is primarily a legal technical one. In many administrative districts, once a beer exceeds a certain alcohol content it must be marketed as “malt liquor”. There are a few beers, such as Carlsberg Elephant, that are “premium” beers labeled as malt liquor. However, the bulk of beers known as malt liquor are simply cheap, high alcohol beer. Mickey’s falls into this category. The distinctive “hand grenade” bottle really should be enough to warn the consumer that this is a bad choice to ingest. Mickey’s is actually just unremarkable, but most malt liquors aren’t brewed to be remarkable. It is not good, but if the goal is to get hammered while drinking out of bottles that look like explosive ordnance .. well, there you have it.
Upon drinking the second bottle (I always drink two of each beer I review,) I am beginning to suspect that I actually have an acquired taste aversion to this beer. Maybe I drank too much one night that I don’t totally recall and it made me sick. For whatever reason, the first sip of the second glass instantly made me feel a bit queasy. In fact, now that I think about it, the last time I had this beer, I also ate an inordinate number of steamed shrimps. My body rejected the combination of Mickey’s and shrimps. Some things are best forgotten.

Reading for the Week: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky – This excerpt from the end of the novel is pretty much what I want somebody to read at my funeral. I have seldom been so emotionally moved by a piece of writing. Maybe I should read it sober, just to be sure.

Question for the week: What memory do you have that edifies and preserves you?


Don’t leave me, she says. Or if you must leave, wait a month, a week, a day, a minute. Each and every extra second together is worth my very life.

No, I must go now.

And so, Aeneas abandons Dido. He will not tarry even for a moment. He loves her, “but the firm purpose of his heart remains.”


What would it look like for a person to have such a sense of destiny? A real person. We come to expect this sort of grand purpose in characters like Aeneas and Napoleon, but for anybody else it comes across as disillusions of grandeur. Still, this is the idea that is sold every day as the heroic archetype. From sports stars to politicians, the story goes: “he knew he was destined for greatness.”

Well what if there actually are a lot of people with Aeneas’s “firm purpose” of heart? If such people exist, it seems that only a very small percent could ever achieve anything that looks like greatness. Greatness is, by definition, exceptional. As a rule, people are not great. So if there are many people of “great resolve”, some must leave their Didos on the shore for naught. These people must give up real, tangible goods in search of their destiny. How many men have sailed off only to find that there was nothing waiting for them on the other side of the sea? How many people “knew” they were destined for great things, but things beyond their control kept them down. “Unfilled destiny” is an oxymoron; if a man is truly destined for greatness, he achieves it.

On the other hand, how many lands have gone undiscovered because it is easier to settle than it is to explore? How many men missed out on greatness because they wavered in their purpose?

In short, destiny seems to do more with conviction and effort than any supernatural guiding force. So I am destined to drink beer; the firm purpose of my palate remains.  Beer of the Week: Birra Moretti – If not for Aeneas, the whole history of Italy would have changed, and this beer would never have been brewed. The bottle says that Birra Moretti is “The Beer in Italy.” I would have put “The” in italics, but I am sure that they know what they are doing. The head is nice and fluffy, but it does not last very long at all. The smell is pretty standard for an adjunct lager and the taste is fairly bland, but it is certainly a drinking beer. All things considered  “The Beer in Italy” probably doesn’t stand up to well against “The Wine in Italy.”

Reading of the week: Aeneid by Virgil, Book IV – Dido sends her sister to beg for Aeneas to stay. She doesn’t go herself. Sounds pretty middle school to me.

Question of the week: Was Dido as destined to die as Aeneas was destined to leave?

Tom and Drugs

As I mentioned last week, I am on drugs that are not to be mixed with alcohol. Luckily, however, I have a small back-log of beer reviews that I need only attach to a reading. So the blog goes on…

Speaking of medicine, one of my favorite literary scenes of all time is about patent medicine. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain lists the remedies that Aunt Polly inflicted upon our titular hero. Tom was depressed because the girl he liked was ill, so Aunt Polly applied all sorts of treatments to him to bring back a healthy disposition. When she settled on pain-killer (although Tom did not have any physical pain,) she certainly got a reaction, but not quite the reaction that she was looking for.

Rather than take the medicine himself, Tom took to “mending the health of a crack in the sitting-room floor with it.” Eventually, Peter the cat got a dose and his reaction was both hilarious and alarming. Aunt Polly was not amused, but learned a valuable lesson. Tom had given the cat a spoonful of the pain-killer with good intentions, just as Aunt Polly had done with him. But “what was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too.”

What we see from this story is that there are no real cure-alls and good intentions are not enough. There must be solid reasoning behind our actions if the results are to be positive. No matter how much we care, it is not caring that solves problems, it is reason.

Beer of the Week: Miller Lite – For better or worse, “light beer” is every bit as American as Mark Twain. Miller Lite was originally known as “Gablinger’s Diet Beer.” Of course, a low-calorie beer is almost inevitably a low-flavor beer. Ironically, diet beer took off not because of the lower calories, but because it is easier to binge drink large quantities. In fact, the bottle doesn’t even advertise the calorie content, it only asserts that the beer is “less filling.” They leave it up to the customer to figure out that “less filling” means you can drink more. The beer itself is as clear as water and just a bit more yellow. If poured aggressively, it produces a decent but quickly fading white head that actually does leave a fair bit of lacing. The smell and taste are both extremely weak, but it sure goes down smooth. After about the 6th or 7th beer I finally understood what the appeal is.

Reading of the week: The Cat and the Pain-Killer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – Not only is Aunt Polly a great example of the way that people can get caught up in fads and popular trends, the description of the cat’s reaction to being dosed with pain-killer is one of the funniest scenes ever written.

Question of the week: How often do you rely on medicines (or beer) to solve problems that are emotional in nature?

Women Workers of the World Unite!

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. As we all know, International Women’s Day was founded as a socialist political event, aimed at liberating women from the drudgery of housework and exhorting them to join the glorious worker’s revolution. It later established as an official holiday of the CCCP by Vladimir Iliych Lenin. Of course, the event has mostly moved away from its specific political roots, but it would seem imprudent to avoid the chance to drink Russian beer and discuss Russian literature and misogyny.

In Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, the character Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov first appears as a misogynist who refers to women as “the lower race.” But like all well-crafted characters (and real people,) there is more to him. He is also a philanderer. Of course, there is nothing mutually exclusive about misogyny and infidelity, but the cause of his infidelity seems somewhat incongruous with his professed views on women. Chekhov writes that Gurov does not feel comfortable in the company of men, “but in the company of women he felt free, and knew what to say to them and how to behave.” Can real misogyny coexist with this comfort and ease with women? Could he really disdain women if they are the only society in which he feels himself?

To be sure, he thought little of his own wife, “and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, [and] inelegant,” but that is just one woman. Women who were not his wife attracted him and made them feel at ease. And all of the negative things he had to say about women, he said to men. Why should we give any weight to what he says to men when we have already been told that he does not know what to say around men? “In the society of men he was bored and not himself,” so are his professed misogynistic views to be regarded as really his own? Or are they simply the talk of a man saying what he thinks other men want to hear?

On my first reading, I had no sympathy for Gurov. Even with these questions in mind, a second reading produced very little inclination to take his side. But I suspect that Chekhov meant for the reader to come down somewhere in the middle. The final question of the story is not whether Gurov is right or wrong in anything that he does, but where can he possibly go from here?

Beer of the Week: Baltika No. 7 Export Lager – Having never heard of any Russian beers (I’ve only had American brewed “Russian imperial porters”,) my expectations were not high. This beer definitely surpassed my admittedly low expectations. It is a clear gold color with a pillowy head. The aroma has a slight hint alcohol at the end, as well as a sweet combination of fruit and of caramel malt. The taste is not quite as sweet as the aroma, but has a slight taste of apple cider. It is not the best beer in the world, but it is definitely better than plenty of “big-name” brews. Plus it has a really cool pull-tab cap.

Reading of the week: The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov – Our introduction to Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov is not flattering. He has nothing good to say about women, even if he has nothing but sweet things to say to them. Whether or not the reader becomes reconciled to him as he changes throughout the story depends much on the reader, but only a certain sort of man can find him totally agreeable from the outset.

Question of the week: Chekhov writes that Gurov “had been unfaithful to [his wife] often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women.” Does his disdain (or apparent disdain) for women result from his infidelity, or does his infidelity result from his disdain?