Shepherd loved not only books, but their multitudinous components, words. Sometimes on his radio shows he would ask someone in the studio or a listener in “radioland,” to look up a word in a dictionary, just to be sure that he and his listeners understood it properly. During one show he announced with great pride that one of his invented phrases, “creeping meatballism,” a comment on conformism, had been formally attributed to him in a new dictionary of slang. He also enjoyed the references to himself in several New York Times crossword puzzles, and one can imagine his joy when, in 1972, he found that the Times puzzle of the day referred to him and his works in eleven words and phrases. A few years back, hearing a rebroadcast of this announcement, I rushed to the microfilm section of my local library to look it up and print it out, thus participating with Shepherd in his bibliophilia and the thrill of his honor, encountering such treasures in the puzzle as, VERBAL SHEPHERD, AIR SPIELER, and his favorite word, EXCELSIOR.
Although I recognize that many bibliophiles must also have unusual stories to tell regarding their own favorites, as a “Shep-kook,” it seems to me that the strangeness of my ragtag little batch of Shepherd books, references, and ephemera is without parallel and is worth describing.
What Author? What Book?
A publishing episode that must have driven Shepherd, the ever-striving author, crazy, involves a coffee-table book about one of his favorite subjects: The Scrapbook History of Baseball. Except for the acknowledgements page and a foreword, the book consists entirely of un-annotated, photo-reproductions of newspaper articles from the years 1876 to 1974. The book contains no authored text other than the duly attributed two-page foreword by Shepherd. Four baseball experts, whose sole job was to select the articles for reproduction, are listed as “authors.” But at best, those four compilers might more accurately have been titled “researchers.” Creator of that sole text, Shepherd might, in these strange circumstances, have been dignified with the title of “author.” Or have I missed something in the book-world’s definition of “author”?
One encounters Shepherd’s short stories everywhere. There is the hardbound, small publication, A Christmas Story, described on the cover as “The book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” But this book, first published in 2003, did not inspire the 1983 film. The book consists of five of Shepherd’s kid stories first published in the 1960s that were seamlessly synthesized into the film. Twenty years after that film was released, without even an attempt at cobbling them together into a logical storyline, those stories were gathered conveniently into a book. Though no crime, the malfeasance lies in claiming, two decades after the fact, that the book as a “book,” rather than that the selected stories in it inspired the film. This false promotion is a distortion inspired by sales-potential. As we know, a simple lie is more easily believed than a more complicated truth. Every so often I encounter much more important re-printings of individual Shepherd stories. He must have enjoyed seeing these stories in schoolbooks as subjects for studying English composition and style. And what pride to find, in another small volume, The Little Book of Fishing, one of his stories rubbing shoulders with those by the likes of Hemingway, Seamus Heaney, and Red Smith.
END OF PART 2
(25) JAPANESE ART—3 WAYS
I own Japanese art in various formats, mostly in reproduction, some original. On our bedroom wall, a trio of images represents three different ways of being. The two top ones are of 19th century woodblock prints, the traditional technique in which the artist draws on rice paper with brush and ink, artisans adhere this to a flat block and someone cuts away whatever is not the black lines. The line-block is then printed in black and the artist indicates on these sheets what and where each color should be. These sheets are adhered to blocks. Then a woodcutter cuts away on each block, whatever is not to be that color. Then all blocks are printed on each sheet to render the final originals of the work.
The left top print on our wall, by Hokusai (most famous work is the “Great Wave”), is not from the original blocks. It is a second edition, made by gluing first editions down on blocks and re-cutting every line—including every leaf of grass–then reprinting. (I compared my print with a reproduction of a verified first edition to encounter an occasional leaf of grass not properly rendered.) This image is from Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Which consists of 42 views. It’s one of my favorites. I love the dynamism shown by the strong wind affecting humans, papers, hat, trees and leaves, and leaves of grass. I appreciate the dynamic swirl of the footpath, the little objects being swept off to the right, and the immense thin outline of Fuji.
The top right print is a high-quality reproduction of my favorite print by Hiroshige. His work tends to be more flat and stylized than Hokusai’s, which is more “realistic.” Here, in a simple and powerful composition, we see the strong wind and rain, bearing down on humans and the background trees.
As an enthusiast of traditional Japanese art, I spent some time observing, in process, the Japanese section of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Asian Peoples Hall. One of the museum’s background painters, Matthew Kalmenoff, worked on the small diorama of a country scene with traditional rice fields. As a coworker and friend of his, I asked to see his preliminary sketch for the curved diorama wall. I expressed delight in it. In his appreciation for the support I’d given him and his work over the years, he signed it and gave it to me. It is a treasure. I enjoy contemplating it and noting some of the painting’s compositional design features.
Two of the berms separating parts of the fields are not parallel with the rest, but come together at an angle at the bottom of the painting so that they enclose it, rather than presenting a visual barrier parallel at the bottom edge.
One of the clouds is perfectly positioned to be reflected in the water, highlighting the farmers.
Regarding the row of farmers planting, the closest one’s round hat is not quite facing the viewer—it’s close enough to a circle to grab attention, but not so much so as to form a bull’s eye that would be hard for the eye to escape. The other hats are even less shown as circles, allowing the eye to move diagonally up the row of them further into the picture. The distant figure with animal is in line to assist the eye to make the little leap even further toward the background.
The design then moves the eye in a zigzag pattern to the right, then, with the help of the land and water there, back to the furthest reaches on the left.
The small building in the middle right is just big enough to give some focus of attention and to prevent the entire right side from being too bare—it almost forms a small framing device, its large tree perfectly placed to block the water there from moving the eye too far rightward–indeed, it caroms the moving eye back to the left.
I see this painting every morning as I get out of bed. I delight in contemplating how Kal’s composition, in what was done as an unimportant, preliminary sketch, but which is so well thought-out, was so elegantly created.
I’ve encountered a photo of the completed diorama, with artifacts in the foreground. I see that, responding to the three-dimensional material, Kal changed a few of the background painting’s details. Magnificent! Rest in peace, Matthew Kalmenoff.
Diorama in the Museum’s Hall of Asian Peoples