Tag Archives: Insects

Kafka’s Somebug

6a00e5502c099d883401156f1f180d970c-800wiA few months ago I spent quite a while cataloguing my books using LibraryThing, the most interesting tool of this kind I have come across. While most similar systems allow you to fetch bibliographical data using ISBN numbers or searching Amazon, this one makes it possible to search in 690 library data bases throughout the world. As a result I was even able to classify my copy of 中國書法大字典 (a wonderful dictionary of Chinese calligraphy I will talk about one day). Once you have started cataloguing your books you will begin to see  which other members have similar libraries to yours. You also get a host of suggestions with regard to other books you might be interested in. These suggestions are generally  very useful (unlike the mystifying ones generated by some other organisations). LibraryThing seems to attract quite a lot of people who really love reading and as a result there are  any number of fascinating libraries which you can explore. I was delighted to find that 24 other people owned copies of Leo Lionni’s Parallel Botany, (another favourite book I will talk about one day). It has long been out of print and sometimes I wondered whether anybody else had it. Among its more arcane features LibraryThing allows you to find out which books you share with only one other member. Some people might also be interested in what it calls its Legacy Libraries (libraries  belonging to famous people of the past). I apparently share 13 books with Marilyn Monroe (including Joyce’s Ulysses) but only 5 with Flaubert , the same number of books I have which were also in General Patton’s library (Machiavelli’s The Prince, On war by Clausewitz, Sun Zi’s Art of War, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and Ernst Junger’s brilliantly written but very disturbing glorification of warfare – Storm of Steel). He must have really liked the last one, because he wrote very bad poetry which expressed the same kind of sentiment. For a sample go here.
If you are like me and have devised any number  of systems for arranging your books over the years, only to regularly forget how they worked, LibraryThing is precious because it allows you to attribute multiple tags to your books. As a result, you don’t have to worry whether a book should be put in a section for Ancient Borneo, left-handed writers or books your Aunt Mary might like to read because it can sit on those three virtual shelves simultaneously.  If that level of complication is not enough for you, LibraryThing also shows you the tags which other people have used for the books you own ,which gives you a new perspective on your collection and makes it possible to add further dimensions to your system.
While I was engaged in all this I discovered a few sobering things. First of all, for about half of my books, all I could remember was that I had read them.  That was  the sum total of my recollection. So perhaps it would have made no difference if I had watched soap operas or collected miniature whisky bottles instead. What I remember from most of the other books I’ve read tells me that my mind must have the same kind of geometrical surface which is used for egg containers, because anecdotes and pebble-like information seem to collect there and remain firmly lodged for years, but I am unable to retain anything flat and extensive like the argument the author is trying to get across or the theories the anecdotes are aimed at illustrating (At very best they lie there crushed, crumpled and decipherable only in fragments).
For example, I know that I read Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature with great enthusiasm  and I have often recommended them. What I actually remember about these books, in all honesty, can be summarised as follows:

  • He recommends using a dictionary and looking up words in it.
  • He says something like “literature should be felt in the backbone”.
  • He describes what a railway carriage was like in late 19th century Russia (for the purposes of understanding Anna Karenina).
  • He talks about the way that Gogol’s metaphors go on so long that they become little stories of their own.
  • As an entomologist, he tries to understand what kind of bug Gregor Samsa was turned into in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

I probably remembered the last point so clearly because I studied a bit of entomology myself. (As a result of which I can tell you how a Mexican Jumping Bean jumps, but very little else). So I was interested to discover that  in 1989 a TV film was produced from Nabokov’s Lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis with Christopher Plummer in the part of Nabokov.


(The illustration at the top of the post is from Nabokov’s teaching copy of The Metamorphosis.)

Mexican Bus Ride


Mexican bus ride was the US title given to a Buñuel film called Subida al cielo (Ascent to Heaven). What follows is about a Mexican bus ride of my own and has nothing to do with the film, I just liked the poster and it is always worthwhile mentioning Buñuel, but you can see an
excerpt here.

My ride started in Cuautla, in the state of Morelos. Its main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Zapata, and it still has his train, which it takes out for a walkabout every now and then.

A Mexican friend of mine once told me that when she was a kid her mother had taken her on a week’s vacation to Cuautla and they had gone to the cinema every night and every night had seen the same film. That is the kind of thing you do in Cuautla.

I had the following interesting experiences in Cuautla, – buying a voltage convertor, being offered live chumiles to eat (I declined), hearing a train whistle and thinking I was going to see Zapata’s train and finding out it was a toy train full of kids,


Voltage Converter




zapata train

Zapata’s train

toy train kid

Not Zapata’s train

encountering a butterfly (more -though not much more- about this here), going to a shoe-shop and watching a friend buy sandals, looking for a beer and getting directed to a saloon-style cantina for real men only, managing to get out of the cantina two hours later, being asked to hold a baby, but most of all catching a bus.  (I must admit that I couldn’t find a picture of a chumil and the insect shown is actually a tumil – but I can’t tell the difference, it might just be an alternative spelling.)

I can’t remember whether the bus (to Puebla) was the Estrella Roja or the Oro line. We climbed up through the mountains on a bumpy, narrow road. Somewhere which looked like nowhere a boy got on and started selling lollipops. “Paletas, paletas,”
he went up and down the aisle. He must have sold one, because I heard him say “Gracias”. Then he sat down next to the driver and looked with a gentle gaze at the road. The driver caught my attention because he talked to the kid, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, respectfully as one would talk to an adult. After about twenty minutes the boy got off. Another place which looked like nowhere. He crossed the road and stood and waited for a bus going the other way, shuttling I supposed all day from one nowhere to another.

“Not much profit for that much time”, I said to the driver.

“He’s doing OK”, the driver said. And he asked me where I was from. When I told him I lived in Rome, he said “Estàs muy lejos de tu rancho.”- (“You’re very far from home”- although I liked the suggestion that I might actually have a ranch). And then he started talking about things. He had been all over Mexico, all over Central America, and through the United States, driving buses. He collected a stone from every place he went to. “Which is the place you would most wish to have a stone from ?” I asked him. “Palos”, he said, “where Columbus set sail.”

He told me “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but when I see a bus go by, I want to drive it.”  He was reading a poet I hadn’t heard of. Later I discovered that he was very famous in Mexico, though much less outside Mexico: his name was Jaime Sabines, and he quoted some things to me. Here is a poem about the moon by Sabines.

When we drew close to Puebla, he pointed out three volcanoes, la Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and the very lively Popocatépetl. I thought that, considering it was boiling away, Popocatépetl had a useful rhyme with kettle. And then as we drove into the elegant city and down to the bus terminal, he said, “Gringos don’t know how to whistle” and this is more or less what he said by way of explanation.