J. Courtney Sullivan: A Favorite Author

March 16th, 2016

Review of “The Engagements” by J. Courtney Sullivan

Simply excellent.

With amazing skill, the author brings to life characters ranging in age from in their 20s to 70s, showing them in the social and economic context of their day. Her mastery is so great that she can make ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people fascinating and compelling.

Through this cast of very different characters, she explores the changing role of women, the meaning of marriage, and the engagement ring as a tangible symbol of marriage.

I enjoyed meeting the characters and for a brief while getting of glimpse of the world through their eyes. And, since I had lived through the 66 years covered by the book, I came to see much of the context of my own life differently.

I had never heard of this author. I was fortunate to stumble upon her at a book signing in Brewster, MA on Cape Cod. Now I am looking forward to reading her previous two novels, “Maine” and “Commencement,” She is now on my list of all-time favorite authors.

(The book is published by Knopf, and the author’s web site is http://jcourtneysullivan.com/ )

Printed versus Ebooks

July 31st, 2014

These thoughts are in response to emails from old friends from Yale. Both value printed books and are reluctant to use ebooks.


I’ve been working with ebooks for 21 years.

And I’ve been obsessed with books for as long as I can remember.

When I was in the seventh grade, I catalogued all my books like a library.

As you know, I’ve maintained a list of every book I’ve read since that time (nearly 3000).

My house is full of printed books — probably 4000-5000.

Keep in mind that there are books as artifacts and books as content.

A book as artifact has value, like an antique has value, based on its rarity.

A book as content has value for the words and what they mean.

Think of Fahrenheit 451, a fictional world where all the books had been burnt and a rebel would devote his entire life to memorizing an entire book. You have just been assigned Paradise Lost. You are Paradise Lost. If you are killed, if you die without teaching a successor, that book will totally cease to exist.

Think of a beautifully illustrated book published in 1880. Only 100 copies were printed. They were individually numbered to enhance the notion that they are very rare. (Like making a statue an destroying the mold after a very limited number of copies have been made.

Think of the movie “Certified Copy” with Juliette Binoche.

Thanks to ebooks, book as artifact has been severed from book as content. Books as artifacts will continue to be read and valued forever. There value is likely to increase astronomically, because they will become ever more rare.

Ebooks have no “rarity”. If one copy exists, millions of copies can be created instantaneously and distributed around the globe instantaneously, at little or no cost.

Many of the books I now publish and republish first existed as “rare” books. Some were on the brink of disappearing entirely, like Homer’s Margites. Now they will exist forever (barring the possibility of another Dark Ages, eliminating the technology that we now take for granted which ebooks depend on for survival).

That means the bad as well as the good will be preserved. But, with shifting social tastes, and individual idiosyncratic tastes, who has the right to serve are arbiter and executioner? And I would contend that much can be learned from bad literature — what makes it “bad”? what does it have in common with other “bad” literature? What does it say about contemporary tastes and mores and values?

Of course, there is a sensual pleasure in holding a finely made book of great poetry. Enjoy it. But enjoy the electronic version as well, for the content.

There’s an ironic twist here.

When The Iliad and the Odyssey were first written, works that had once existed only in mind and memory, and that few knew in their entirety and could only share by face-to-face recitation became generally available. It was tedious and expensive to make copies, but it could be done.

The artifact nature of written books made it possible for books to be passed on from generation to generation, independent of faulty mortal human memory. Of course, those artifact books were subject to wear and destruction. But there were always people interested enough in, placing high enough value on the best of the best to make fresh copies themselves or to have their slaves do it or to pay to have it done. Yes, there were mistakes in judgment and there were natural disasters and human disasters (the burning of the Library of Alexandria), but much still survived, for thousands of years.

The twist is that electronic books (audio as well as text) free the content from the artifact — like it was before books were written down. The book resides in memory once again, as originally, only the memory is electronic instead of human and mortal — available to all. The memory of all of literature, of the entire human race can fit on a PC on my desk and eventually could be embedded in the tiniest gadget, even in the clothes I wear, and could be owned and taken for granted by everyone, or be so readily accessible by anyone from anywhere that “ownership” will no longer be associated with content (except by artificial legal constraints on recent content, by copyright).

Michael Hart, when he founded the Gutenberg Project, compared the advent of Ebooks to the invention of the printing press — leading to books becoming inexpensive and readily available. But the change is even more profound than that.

This is a moment in human history comparable to the invention of writing, and with immediate impact on the entire human race.



What’s up, Doc? — What you can do with books in doc format.

July 3rd, 2014

Starting now (July 2014) all new books posted to our Quench Editions download store http://www.samizdat.com/quencheditions/ will include a doc version, in addition to epub, pdf, and prc — all zipped in a single file. If you buy an older book and would like the doc version, just let me know by email seltzer@samizdat.com

Why doc? The other versions, which are intended for reading on ereaders (Nook, Kindle, Kobo, Apple gadets, etc.) can’t be edited. You can open doc files in Microsoft Word and do anything with them that you can do with any other file — highlight, edit, annotate, copy-and-paste, save changes, print, etc. If you are doing research or serious reading, you might well want those capabilities. Please note that you could read a book on an ereader, then open the doc version of the same book on your PC or Mac to do serious work with select sections.
Richard Seltzer

J. Courntey Sullivan — a new all-time favorite author

July 30th, 2013

Review of “The Engagements” by J. Courtney Sullivan

Simply excellent.

Half a dozen story lines, from 1947 to the present, interweave and inter-echo.

With amazing skill, the author brings to life characters ranging in age from 20s to 70s,showing them in the social and economic context of their day. Her mastery is so great that she can make ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people fascinating and compelling.

Through this cast of very different characters, she explores the changing role of women, the meaning of marriage, and the engagement rings a a tangible symbol of marriage.

I enjoyed meeting all these characters and for a brief while getting of gimpse of their world through their eyes. And, since I ahd lived through the 66 years covered by the book, I came to see much of the context of my own life differently.

I had never heard of this author. I was fortunate to stumble upon her at a book signing in Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. Now I am looking forward to reading her previous two novels — “Maine” and “Commencement”, and all her future books. She is now on my list of all-time favorite authors.

(The book is published by Knopf, and the author’s web site is http://jcourtneysullivan.com/ )

Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com

“These Dreams of You” by Steve Erickson, book review

July 1st, 2012

published by Europa Press, 2012

reviewed by Richard Seltzer

By literary magic, an adopted four-year-old Ethiopian girl becomes a symbol of America today.  In this novel, the characters are so vivid and the story is so gripping, that you are hooked and pulled along as the narrative splits and twists, with past and present intertwined with each other and with a fictitious reality invented by one of the characters.

And when it turns out that the central mystery — who is the girl’s birth mother and where is she — cannot be solved, the result feels natural, inevitable, and satisfying.

It’s a great ride.

Richard Seltzer seltzer@samizdat.com

Favorite books read so far this year

June 21st, 2012

The Little Book by Selden Edwards — bizarre, fun time-travel; one incredible surprise after another; the impossible made plausible

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea — Mexico in the late 19th century, a gritty dangerous Mexico you’ve never encountered before, and a young girl who performs miracles (fact-based historical fantasy)

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith — actually, if you haven’t yet, you need to read the entire series of First Ladies’ Detective Agency; set in Botswana; the style and the characters and the vision of the meaning of life are simply delightful

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch — extremely ambitious and nearly always successful tale about the destiny of mankind, manipulated behind the scenes by angels (?), set in the Netherlands from WW II to the present day.

Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone — I told you about this one before, 13th century history, about four sisters who became queens; you are descended from two of them — the queens of England and France — who played pivotal, but little-known roles in history

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl — he’s a local novelist whose previous works (like The Dante Club) I enjoyed; this one is a mystery story set in 19th century Boston, dealing with the early days of MIT.

Le Petit Garcon by Philippe Labro — a tale of the Nazi occupation of France, made delightful (even in horrendous circumstances) by the perspective of the young boy who tells the story (a good book for practicing rusty French)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking — far better, more interesting, and more up-to-date than his Brief History of Time; the universe is far more complex and interesting than you ever imagined.

Richard Seltzer seltzer@samizdat.com

In Just-spring and Hemingway

June 26th, 2011

One of my favorite poems is “In Just-spring…” by e.e. cummings, which ends:






baloon/Man whistles




High-school footnotes connected “goat-footed” with the Pan of Greek mythology. But for so spontaneous, so immediate a poem, that felt like a stretch.

Having recently seen Woody Allen’s new flick “Midnight in Paris” (great fun), I read several books about Americans in Paris in the 1920s, and reread “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast”.  I was surprised to learn that e. e. cummings was in Paris when Hemingway was there.  And in “A Moveable Feast” I stumbled upon the following evocation of spring:

“In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept.  The windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain.  The sun was drying the wet faces of the houses that faced the window.  The shops were all shuttered.  The goat-heard came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us cam out onto the sidewalk with a big pot.  The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk.  The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers.  The goatherd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing.  I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk.  She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and the the shutting of her door.  She was the only customer for goat milk in our building.”

For me, that passage gives the cumming’s poem a fresh tactile immediacy.

Best wishes.

Richard Seltzer


Reactions to “Saint Smith and Other Stories”

June 11th, 2011

The following is a reaction to my book “Saint Smith and Other Stories” from a friend in Russia:

I’ve read your book with pleasure because I’ve found the reflection of my deepest thoughts, questions and doubts.

We all (All? Several? Electus? Happiest from us? Unluckiest from us?) have a godlike spark in our soul. I’m sure that you feel yourself a little bit like God (Sometimes? Seldom? Always?) I would like to be ensured that I’m a goddess while I was a child as this Saint Smith was. I could create something very significant and important for people. Certainly Dante felt himself like God when he distributed sinners into cycles of Hell in his “Divine Comedy”. It’s interesting that he had inserted betrayers of spiritual into deepest ninth cycle. That means that in this cycle must be creators who don’t create.

By the way G.Altshuller (the author of the theory of inventive decisions, see http://www.altshuller.ru/world/eng/index.asp ) had studied the biographies of famous inventors and found their common rules and principles (Life Strategy of a Creative Person - LSCP). All inventors preferred to suffer and to be considered as crazy but not to refuse from development of their inventions.

I see in your barracks the model of our life with its limits and conformity. And with our readiness to admire and envy to men who we consider as hero and who have not enough guts even to take a shower.

While reading I had recalled the pantomime of the famous French mime Marcel Marso. He showed a man in a cage who tried to go out breaking iron rods of the cage and threatening to heaven in epicene fury. At last he had done it – he was free! What a blessing! And immediately he had found a new cage, a little bit larger than previous one. And he (as we all) realized that life is only a file of cages. And behind one bar screen there are thousand bar screens. And behind one hope there are thousand hopes…


This book is available from Amazon at


Saint Smith and Other Stories by Richard Seltzer

May 8th, 2011

Saint Smith and Other Stories consists of two novellas and five short stories. “Saint Smith” focuses on Charlie, a would-be experimental film maker, Sarah his traditional Bible-believing mother, and Irene the clever ironic uninhibited German woman he marries. “The Barracks” takes place in basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, at the time of the Viet Nam War. The five stories deal with puzzles of human nature and the meaning of life.

http://www.createspace.com/3507928, http://www.amazon.com/dp/1455400866

“[Saint Smith is] rich in thought and peopled with intriguing characters (each soul exotic in its own peculiar mix of angels and demons, reality and fantasy, order and anarchy). The selected episodes of their lives are like pieces in an interlocking jigsaw puzzle which, when assembled, present another puzzle – the “What’s wrong with this picture?” kind. Everyone and everything is in its appropriate place, all is proper. Yet something is missing. Something isn’t right. Somehow it all has the quality of a dream. And yet it isn’t a dream – it’s life. The theme of sandcastles, the building of houses, the mansions in houses, the building of lives, the dream of living, Charlie with his camera like waves sweeping over fragile constructions at once real and make believe is all brilliant, and challenging. It has a Barth, Vonnegut, even Borges aspect to it, as do the rest of the pieces in the collection, only without the surrealism, which may make it even more effective as the impact settles in.”

– Rex Sexton, author of “Desert Flower”, “The Time Hotel”, “Night Without Stars”, and “X Ray Eyes”

Why we read/write/watch stories — fiction and evolution

May 2nd, 2010

Why do we read/write/watch stories? Why do we need thousands of them and always new ones?

It’s not just escape and fun. It’s also survival of the species.

Each of us has the potential for thousands of different personalities/lives. Some are stronger than others, but all are capable of growing and becoming dominant.

When a group of people faces a crisis together, the individuals by nature (like water finding its own level) take on roles (like “leader”) that are necessary for survival — with previously hidden potential coming to the fore.

In reading and writing storise, we exercise these potential lives within us, and vicariously acquire experience, which could, under unexpected crisis situations, prove important for the survival of the group or the species.

That’s also why it’s important to preserve and read thousands of old previously out-of-print and forgotten books.

Richard Seltzer seltzer@samizdat.com