Posts filed under “Books & Literature”


Dear Dr. Boli: We know that the theater was a favorite amusement in the fourth and fifth centuries in big cities like Antioch or Rome. Why have no Greek or Latin dramas survived from late antiquity, or indeed—with the exception of Seneca’s—from Roman imperial times at all? —Sincerely, Antigone Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Drama, Duck Hollow University.

Dear Madam: Because, as archaeology confirms, the plays were really bad. We quote from A Short History of Antioch by Edmund Spenser Bouchier: “The theatre, which was in three stories, attributed respectively to Caesar, Agrippa, and Titus, standing below the Acropolis on the Silpian Hill, still shows traces of the stage and vomitories.”


Over at Father Pitt, Herr von Hindenburg, one of our frequent correspondents here, left a comment that brings up some very interesting questions. Because they are of a literary nature, Father Pitt asked whether Dr. Boli would like to take a try at replying, and then vanished from the room before Dr. Boli could give him a definite answer.

The context was a window by Louis Comfort Tiffany at Chatham University, which was given to Chatham’s ancestor, the Pennsylvania College for Women, in 1888. It is an allegory of women’s education, with a stained-glass version of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl and the names of great writers, thinkers, and artists in wreaths surrounding the subject. This is Herr von Hindenburg’s comment:

It is a pity that, at a women’s college, they couldn’t find a single female author to include. Dickinson, Hildegard of Bingen, Austen? Are there any better examples who might have been held in more esteem at the time?

The answer is probably not, and yes that is too bad. But it is a fact of the time. Emily Dickinson’s poems had not yet been published in 1888. Jane Austen was a popular novelist, and popular novels were a lower form of art—we do not find Cervantes or Fielding on the window, either. The only female author among the classics and moderns who could possibly have stood with the names in that window was Sappho, whose reputation as the greatest of lyric poets stands out as a striking anomaly in classical culture.

But in context the choices were good ones. When the Pennsylvania Female College was young, its students and alumnae were very conscious that giving women an education equal to traditional male education was a new thing. Women had not been equal to men in the past, but they would be in the future. They would therefore take as their models, not works that were pretty good considering that they were written by women, but the very peaks of human achievement; and in taking those as their models they would force women into an equal ranking with men.

And they did. If today we were donating a memorial window that commemorated the greatest human achievements since 1888, we would, without even trying to be “inclusive,” automatically include a number of female names. This is because those first generations of educated women did not say to themselves, “I will be excellent among women.” They said, “I will be Galileo. I will be Plato. I will be Homer and Virgil and Dante. I will be Shakespeare twice over.” They started with the assumption that their female identity was, to borrow theological language, an accident and not their substance, and that as human beings there was no limit to what they could accomplish. Because they did that—because they went out into the world insisting that they could show Raphael or Moliere a thing or two—today we are forced, merely by the facts of history, to admit women as human beings equal to men. In 1888, that was a debatable assumption, probably contested by most men and even by a majority of women. This window took a stand for the minority opinion.

Dr. Boli has written before about the Balkanization of human achievement. To use a bit of fashionable academic jargon, he believes it is another manifestation of white male privilege. He has spoken with students of various designer colors who are constantly told by their professors (who are often white and male) that they should devote their studies to representatives of their race or culture or gender or sexual orientation, and there is something wrong with them if they happen to be more interested in Thomas Aquinas or Confucius or anyone outside their own designated identity. You should be affirming your identity by learning about the achievements of your kind of people, we tell them. Meanwhile, we white males will enjoy the achievements of our culture and your culture and everybody else’s culture, and we’ll feel smugly enlightened about doing it. It would be hard to imagine a balder assertion of white male privilege: we get the whole world of human achievement, and you get Slovenia.

The alternative we propose is that we should regard human achievement as the achievement of humans, not as belonging to particular subspecies of humans. Duke Ellington was a genius by human standards, not simply by the standards of Black composers from Washington, D.C. Lady Murasaki was a novelist for all the world, not just for Japanese women. Marie Curie’s scientific discoveries do not fall apart if you are not female and Polish.

Whether there is such a thing as moral progress is debatable, but the strongest evidence for it is the twentieth century’s repudiation of the ideas of racial and sexual superiority. It seems to Dr. Boli that much of that progress goes back to institutions like the Pennsylvania College for Women, where students were told by everything around them—even the stained glass—that nothing less than greatness was expected of them. So, yes, it is a pity that they had no female models to aspire to—not yet. But they were doing the right thing. They were preparing themselves to be the models to which all of us, male and female, would look up in the future.


Dear Dr. Boli: I was reading that long-form content is in demand these days, and that it is rewarded by search engines and drives reader engagement and increases return traffic. So what I was wondering was this: What’s the difference between long-form content and long content? —Sincerely, Roberta Griselda Morgana Willoughby-Smythe-Blanket-Henderson, Vice President for Content, Market Optimization Associates.

Dear Madam: “Long-form” is the long form of the term “long.”


Samuel Hazo is only 94, but even for that relatively young age he has been extraordinarily productive lately. Here is his latest book, his second from Serif Press: Entries from the Interior. It’s a book of essays, a commonplace-book, a string of random observations, all filtered through the unique and original mind of Pennsylvania’s first poet laureate.

He had the window seat. After take-off he said, “My line is socks; what’s yours?” I said I was a writer. He smiled his least impressive smile and asked, “What do you write?” I paused and said, “I hope they are poems.” “Where are you headed now?” he added. I told him I’d been invited to recite my poems at a university. “They pay you for that?”

The concise poem of a Volkswagen compared with the blunt prose of a truck…

Loyalty to whom? Loyalty for what? I hear so much about loyalty, but loyalty remains, like courage, a blind virtue. One can be loyal to crime as faithfully as one can be loyal to one’s country or one’s family. One can be loyal to a lie as well as to the truth.

Is sensory knowledge more memorable than empirical knowledge? Probably. The pain of a broken arm is a stronger memory than the square root of four.

Poetry precedes religion historically and philosophically. Whatever is alive in religion is poetry. The rest is ritual.

Sloth is invariably considered by many as the mother of invention. Who, for instance, but a lazy man shortcutted his way to the wheel, the match, the boat? But sloth is also the father of mischief. Who but a lazy man opted for slavery?

Poetry has no past tense. Nor does music. Nor does God.

Order Entries from the Interior at Amazon.


What marketing told production:

“We need little leatherette-bound notebooks with inspiring words like ‘Goal’ and ‘Plan’ and stuff on the covers.”

What production delivered:

Goal, Plan, Stuff


Each of the following is an original pangram or alphabetic sentence: that is, each sentence uses all twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.

Extremely zealous journalists vowed to pick up the quaint engraving of a crab.

Equality is a fuzzy notion, but such axioms have always presupposed our being hep to the jive, Jack.

I am in a quandary: I should like to fight back, but I am puzzled as to how to deal with his javelin and his axe.

Each step into the quagmire further dampened her zeal for every kind of jewelry box.

After consulting the best references and rejecting all their suggestions, we decided to name him Kpqvxyz.


The sentences below cover a wide range of subjects from the mundane to the surreal, but they all share one interesting property. You will probably have little trouble guessing what it is; but the answer will be printed below the metaphorical fold, along with the source of the quotations.

The lazy horses gave a quick jerk which broke the axle and hurled the farmer upon his head.

He was puzzled to know how to coax the brave juggler to some quiet spot away from the platform.

One of the boys quickly threw the large javelin beyond the maximum distance and won the prize.

The zealous student became quite exhausted and dizzy before the journey through the park was half over.

The jury quickly agreed upon a verdict and all expect the musical zealot will be given a heavy fine.

In consequence of his love of luxury the wealthy jeweler did not join in the craze to climb the high mountain peaks.

Four jovial sailors went to the quizzical captain on the deck and asked him to give them leave of absence for sixty days.

Few men could be more jolly than our new acquaintance until he saw his clerk puzzling over the columns of the stock exchange.

Though still dizzy the injured chauffeur who wore a quaint crimson cloak gave an exact description of the vanishing automobile.

A large quantity of heavily glazed jars was taken out of the burning building by two policemen and a tax collector.

The firemen thought it would jeopardize many lives if they did not acquaint the inmates of the extreme danger of the falling bricks.

All the expenses of publishing the jokes in the columns of the daily press were borne by the queer old man whose zeal never flagged.

Many unjust laws allow bold knaves to exist in high places and acquire great influence with which they dazzle the eyes of the people.

The poor cabman many times expressed his thanks to the judge for his kindness and said he would return with the zebra as soon as his quest was over.

He was at the zenith of his power when the officials began making an inquiry in regard to his prejudice against the single tax movement.

Next day they were all equally amazed to see the grizzled veteran enter the ranks and march from the barracks to join in the parade.

Several of the boys had torn their jackets before they realized the wisdom of taking an axe to chop away the branches at the edge of the quarry.

One of the men at the zoo had just recovered from an attack of smallpox when an urgent request for his removal was made by the park commissioner.

In my remarks tonight I shall extemporize briefly upon my views of a subject equally dear to the hearts of-us all.

If you wish to move up and join the ranks of the experts, you should be sure to work with zeal, keeping your fingers quite close to the keys and hitting the keys with a low lift of the hands.

The answer:



Fidessa cover

It is a common game in literary criticism to trace a writer’s influences. Sometimes the game degenerates into accusations of plagiarism on the part of the critics, and on the other hand many writers are embarrassed to admit that they were influenced at all by any other writer.

But all writers are influenced by other writers. It is impossible for most people to learn to write without learning to read (we recall a notable exception in one Barnstable Bear), and what one has read will invariably shape what one writes. All the great works of literary art have been put together by authors who had read other books and learned from them. Often those authors have deliberately taken another author as a model or inspiration, and that is not plagiarism: it is simply literature at work.

Since an early reader of Fidessa asked about Dr. Boli’s influences, he is happy to mention three writers whose works he had in mind when he was writing it. They are Edmund Spenser, Henry James, and J. M. G. Le Clézio. If you imagine a story written by those three men in collaboration, you should have a very good idea of what kind of reading experience awaits you with Fidessa.


Fidessa cover

Fidessa is the story of young Adam and the three women in his life: his best friend, his new love interest, and the enigmatic and impossibly attractive artist Fidessa, who may be something more than human. Fidessa is painting Adam’s portrait; but as she grows more and more manipulative, it becomes clear that her real work is not the image on the canvas, but Adam’s life itself.

This is a haunting tale of obsession—funny, harrowing, thought-provoking, and possibly even allegorical, and told with the subtlety and wit Dr. Boli’s readers have come to expect. With The Crimes of Galahad and The Emperor, it is destined to take its place as one of the foremost literary works of our age—both on its own merits and because, honestly, what’s the competition?

We promised this for April, but here it is a day early.

Order Fidessa at Amazon, on paper or in electrical form.