Pleasures of the Codex

i have two things to tell you; i dont know if they meld together that well, yet will i write.


i have in my hands, or at my side, rather, since I’m typing now, a book, the physical codex, published in 1953. Still with the paper wrapper we used to call, I think, the ”dust jacket”. It’s been awhile since i read from a codex. I’m totally seduced by the ease and speed of access to books on my Kindle. But aside from finding myself tapping the margin of the right hand page when im ready to move on, it’s going fine.

i had forgotten how, as you progress in the text and pages fan out in a cascade to your left, the delicate slightly roseate color of the very edge of the leaves manifests itself.

And this is an old book (i ordered it in Amazon, Kindle doesnt have it) so it has the indescribable smell, woody, presciently mouldy…new books smell, too, kinda like a sawmill—i thought of that the last time i entered a Barnes & Noble store: will future generations even know how books smelled?

Enough about the form, now for the substance: This book is Beauty for Ashes, by Christopher LaFarge (1953). It’s a novel in verse. And its about—wait for it—a zoning hearing.

As you know, I’m a land use lawyer, so finding out that someone wrote a long epic poem about my métier is exciting! A revelation!
Now let me tell you how i came to discover this book. im hooked on Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, they’ve become my go-to when i cant sleep or experience some other enforced idleness. And at one point, the great detective’s sidekick reports that Wolfe is reading Besuty for Ashes by LaFarge. So i was curious.

i imagine that Lafarge was well-known when Rex Stout was writing, there’d have been no point in mentioning the book unless his readers would know enough about it that it would flesh out the Nero Wolfe character for them.
its mostly free verse. im ordinarily not crazy about that, and my first thought was, the poetry isnt as good as Spoon River Anthology —but ive found it hard to put down since i started it a few hours ago. That has to mean something.

Desr readers, i dont expect anybody to try to get a copy of this book. Life is short, we have to ration our time.

But spare a thought for LaFarge and the many other poets and writers who labored and strutted in the sun of public attention in their day, only to vanish into oblivion.

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene/ The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;/Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its fragrance on the desert air.”


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20 thoughts on “Pleasures of the Codex

  1. Back in the day, before Al Gore invented the internet, about half of my sea bag was filled with books. No toothbrush or tooth paste because no more space and that’s why God gives Marines a GP brush w/ CLP.

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  2. Hyp, I truly miss books open on my desk/lap tray! New paper, nearly-dry ink: Ambrosia! Especially if it’s poetry or a travel journal (Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Patrick Leigh-Fermor).

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  3. P.S. Hyp, Rex Stout and “Ellery Queen” are favorites of mine, too. (Do you like the classic radio or TV versions, as well?) Do you have Nero Wolfe’s Cookbook? All the recipes from all the books are in that one.

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  4. Never saw the TV versions. But it would be fun to have the cookbook; I love those scenes where Fritz serves up some impossibly complicated dish for Archie and Nero- and the fact that he invites anybody who happens to be in the house to dine!
    There usd to be an “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine” I think. My mother subscribed to that, and I 5hink also one for The Saint. I’m tellin’ ya, , when I was a kid I thought that as an adult, bodies would fall out of closets and I would have to find out whodunit—those were the only grownups I read about.

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    1. “Fight on, my men,” Sir Andrew Said

      “A little I’m hurt but not yet slain.

      “I’ll just lie down and bleed a while,

      “And then I’ll rise and Fight again.”

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        1. Re: the Levy quote: ‘Zac’ly! Cue Ecclesiastes:

          “Whatever thy hand find to do, do it with thy might, for there is no work , nor device, nor knowledge nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.”,

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  5. Coda:
    I just finished Beauty for Ashes. Wow. And this was LaFarge’s 9th book! I wonder if the rest of them were in verse?
    My favorite novel,in verse is Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. But there’s also Last Exit to Canterbury , and (I’m pretty sure) The Sotweed Factor. And of course Byron’s Don Juan.
    But the most amazing thing about the experience of reading this novel was the reminder, once again, of how little we really know about …I was gonna say history, but I mean very recent history, so maybe “the,past” is a better way to describe it. The texture of American life in the 1950s, f’rinstance. Forgotten, gone, as far away from our perception as the 1250’s. So much we don’t even know we don’t know.

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      1. No, #metoo, and that’s the cliché about pre 1968 America. That’s all we remember now, even we who lived it; to future generations those decades will be reduced to caricature. Like Picasso said to Gertrude Stein when she complained that his portrait of her didn’t look like her: “It will, Gertrude, it will…”

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    1. Ovid’s big blockbusters were all written as poetry if memory serves.

      Anybody else translate Ovid into English? Some of lines we translated out loud in 4th year Latin class were almost too racy to be discussed in mixed company. Dude was a rock star long before rock and roll crowned its king, Elvis obvs

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      1. Recently I encountered Ovid when I read A Little History of Poetry—great book! Yes he wrote in verse. People always think “classical” culture is stuffy and prudish. That’s so funny, when you look at the plots of the great operas, for instance. Rape, murder, incest, vengeance, illicit passion!

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