Lunching with intellectuals

November 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece, “Obama and the War on Brains” appeared in the November 9 edition of New York Times. I like Kristof’s definition of an intellectual:

“An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and …that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.”

Tuesday I had the great pleasure of having lunch with three women who cheerfully embrace the world of ideas. Angie, Paula, Beth and I discussed health (as little as possible, but when you’re this age, unavoidable), politics  (bracing and exciting at the moment), finance (depressing and enraging at the moment), and  finally, and inevitably (and with a certain relief), books.

Angie belongs to a philosophy book club (as well as a science fiction discussion group); she had this nugget to pass along to us: measuring approximately what is important is itself more important than measuring precisely what is NOT. (I hope I got that right!)

consiliencebk edward-o-wilson1 I invariably leave these get-togethers with yet more titles of books I want to read. Angie recommended Consilience by Edward O. Wilson.  I later realized that I knew this author, an eminent biologist and tireless crusader for the cause of biodiversity, and had read some of his shorter pieces.

ishi Then there was Ishi, Last of His Tribe, by Theodora Kroeber. This is Amazon’s blurb:

“In the early 1900s a small band of California Indians in the Yahi tribe lived in concealment, resisting the fate that had all but wiped out their people — violent death by the invading gold seekers and settlers. In time, members of the small group died, until there remained a single survivor — the man who became known as Ishi. This book tells the haunting, heroic story of Ishi — the boy, the man, the lone survivor of his tribe.

This is the currently in-print version of this work:


The Kroebers were the parents of author Ursula K. LeGuin.

Beth mentioned that she is happily making her way through the Lake District mysteries of Martin Edwards. Along with Ann Cleeves, Edwards was recently inducted into Britain’s Detection Club. It is a signal honor for writers of crime fiction to be granted membership in this organization, which counts Dorothy L. Sayers among its founders.

Before lunch, Angie and I had met at Books with a Past for an hour of delicious browsing, followed, for me at least, by delicious acquiring.We also had the not-to-be-missed opportunity of chatting with Marvin Schaefer, who along with his wife Mary Alice is the proprietor of Books With a Past. A portly gentleman with a flowing, seasonally-appropriate beard, Schaefer expounded on a wide variety of topics. He is a man of definite opinions ( I know; the pot calling the kettle, it takes one to know one, etc.) and impressive erudition. In addition, he possesses a finely honed crap detector and a great sense of humor.

Among my trove of purchases was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated and with an introduction by Edward Fitzgerald. I’ve long had my eye out for a particular edition of this famous poem, although on this occasion I was not searching for it – was not even thinking of it. But serendipitous encounters like this are one of the joys of shopping in second hand bookshops.

This Rubaiyat is plain and unprepossessing on the outside, but open it and in addition to the timeless verses of Khayyam/Fitzgerald, you will find striking illustrations. What you will not find is a date of publication – or even the name of the illustrator!

There is virtually no cataloguing-in-publication data. Only this: “De Luxe Editions Club / Garden City, New York.” The artist,  Edmund J. Sullivan,  inscribed his name, inconspicuously, at the bottom of some of his  drawings. See below, the one that accompanies quatrain LI: “The Moving Finger writes…” (Click to enlarge.)

I estimate the date of publication to be around 1935.

This is the book that was part of our home library when I was a child. I recognized it at once:


Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies ;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.




Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.




Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.




The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


I seem to have known that last verse by heart all my life, and that drawing has likewise always been with me.


There are times when one feels that a deceased loved one has reached out from the next world to this one, and placed a gift in one’s hands. This was one of those times.


  1. In case anyone is interested… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] For additional information, see the post Lunching with Intellectuals. […]

  2. Fred said,

    I also have a copy of this book and love the fact there is no publication information.

    The Rubaiyat should be required reading for all students in middle school.

    All the best.

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