01/28/11 1:01pm

It’s interesting how good books locate me. A friend suggests one, a book review stands out, a cover might catch my eye. My next-door neighbor brought over a bagful he had finished — a couple of mysteries, a nature book and Aaron Lansky’s ‘Outwitting History.’ Curious, I opened the Lansky book and started to read. What a terrific story.

In 1980, Lansky and his friends embarked on a 25-year crusade to rescue Yiddish books from destruction. Yiddish, a conversational dialect, had been vilified, judged as vulgar by the purists, and left for dead. In rented trucks Lansky’s crew scoured the East Coast, from Canada to Florida for books — 500 books here, 5,000 there — retrieved from families who had inherited them but could not read them, from publishing companies that could not sell them, from warehouses where they had been left and forgotten for decades, and even from dumpsters, surely destined for oblivion. They later expanded their efforts to all the major American cities, then on to South America and Europe. They saved an astounding 1,500,000 books, and a dying culture as well.

Not only did I like this book, I plucked a great quote from it. Lansky, physically and emotionally drained from his efforts, considered packing it in. A friend quoted Perek, a 2,000-year-old Hebrew text: “It’s not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He persevered and went on to found the National Yiddish Book Center.

The Perek quote reminded me of a sign we had at work: “If you’re gonna do it, do it; if you’re not gonna do it, then don’t do it; but don’t say you’re gonna do it and then not do it.” I like inspirational stuff like this and remember Ray Nitschke, the ferocious 1960s Packers linebacker, who said to an interviewer, “I’ve never played in a losing game.” The reporter said, “But you lost to the Giants three weeks ago,” and Nitschke replied, “Oh, sure, sometimes the clock runs out while we’re behind, but that’s not losing.”

Such tenacity can be inspiring in real life, as in Lansky and in Greg Mortenson’s ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ as well as in fictional characters like the meshuggener Captain Ahab and the little engine that could.

Life would be difficult without words, and words would be difficult without grammar. In the mid-’70s my teenage daughter said something like, “It’s not too big of a deal,” and I remember wondering where the “of” had come from. Wasn’t “too big a deal” good enough? Sometime later I was listening to a tape of Bobby Thompson’s stunning home run and the announcer, Russ Hodges, said, “Lockman, with not too big of a lead off second.” This was said in 1951, and now you hear and read it everywhere. Are there any English teachers out there? Give us the truth! I can handle the truth! What’s up with the “of”?

Finally, a sort of mystical quote from the movie “La Talante,” which I send out to my wife as St. Valentine’s Day approaches. “I saw you before I met you.” My impossible dream, certainly.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

11/29/10 4:08pm

The Christmas catalogs are pouring in and I’m in a quandary over what to put on my personal wish list. It’s the colors of the clothes that confound me; I don’t know how to choose among the stupendously imaginative choices that are offered. I was leaning towards a coal jacket, gunmetal pants, a rust shirt, a graphite tie and shale socks but didn’t want to look like I’d just emerged from some West Virginia mine shaft — in a quarry, not a quandary. Maybe a birch, willow, sprig, twig and hickory presentation — uh-oh, here comes the Southold brush pickup truck; better not.

Something in cheddar? Petrol? Thunderstorm? Boy, I’d love the job of naming all the colors of all the sweaters and all the blouses and all the pants and all the ties and … What would you think of a Windex, Pepto-Bismol and fried egg ensemble ?

•••

Many Christmas cards feature the Star of Bethlehem, which the ever-romantic scientists have probably pinned down as Guacamole’s Comet, which vaporized in mid-May of 1187. I prefer the guiding star legend and, as a matter of fact, I like stars in general. I still might look up and do the “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight …” thing (hey, you never know), and it was surely my mother who first sang “Twinkle twinkle, little star” to me.

Actually, that quatrain is the first of five in “The Star,” a poem written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), well before Hallmark. Here’s the second stanza:

When the blazing sun is set,
When the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

The familiar part is sung to a melody written by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I looked for other songs with “star” in their titles and found surprisingly few. “Star Dust” and “Starry, Starry Night,” surely, then those opportunities to wish upon one, to swing on one and to watch them fall on Alabama.

While it’s strange that star appears in so few notable song or movie titles (“A Star is Born,” “Star Wars”), it’s even more star-tling how few book titles contain the word. Of all the books listed on the three “100 Best…” lists I have, granting many repeats, there are none. Bupkus. “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”  by Douglas Adams was No. 72 on the Radcliffe College list — close, but no cigar. Curious, I went to the library’s catalog and scrolled through nearly 300 “star” entries. I found lots of Star Trek and Star Wars, many sports star biographies, too many Hollywood bimbo bios, countless children’s books and three let’s say significant entries: “A Star Called Henry” (Roddy Doyle), “A Shooting Star” (Wallace Stegner) and the terrific “Son of the Morning Star,” Evan Connell’s account of Custer, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn.

So hey, all you nascent authors out there, brighten our lives with a “star” title; the sky’s the limit.

Finally, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one. Peace in the valley.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

11/01/10 3:58pm

I came across a 1996 article by Wendy Wasserstein about New York City. She was decrying the presence of big box stores and fast-food restaurants and ended by saying, “You would never meet Nathan Detroit at a Starbucks counter.” With that, all the Broadway characters Damon Runyon created came to mind: Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Jones, Madame La Gimp and, of course, good old reliable Nathan.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s Runyon, hanging out in Broadway bars and hotels, captured the voice of the seamier side of the city, a voice probably no longer heard. According to The Dictionary of Slang, he overheard many unusual words and made them part of our everyday language: “cheaters” for glasses, “equalizer” and “shiv” for gun and knife, and “the shorts” for a lack of funds, among many. I still smile remembering the four hustlers out on the river “watching the boat race between the Harvards and the Yales” and trying to figure out a way to fix the outcome. They do.

With great humor Runyon tells about the gamblers and gangsters that inhabit Times Square. The writing is stylized, but is it still enjoyable? As Benny Southstreet might say, “a little more than somewhat.”

In the ’50s and ’60s Joseph Mitchell, writing for The New Yorker, brought us stories of real-life people and, along the way, made McSorley’s saloon famous. He loved certain sections of the city — the waterfront, the Bowery, the Village — and wrote about the people who worked or lived there and the characters who wandered the streets and navigated the gin mills.

Most famous of these was Joe Gould, a slight, disheveled Harvard graduate, better known as Professor Sea Gull, who constantly spoke of writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” filling dozens of composition books. Reputed to be nine million words and growing, it turned out, sadly, not to exist at all. Mitchell wrote about the fearless Mohawk Indians, gliding along the high steel beams of New York’s bridges and skyscrapers, riveting the city together, and of Gypsy neighborhoods, with their sometimes borderline methods of making money. These and many more are compiled in the matchless “Up in the Old Hotel.”

In later years Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin wrote wonderfully about New York City, and Pete Hamill’s autobiographical “Downtown: My Manhattan” is a tough and tender recollection of growing up in the tenements, in the schools and on the streets. In Hamill’s “Snow in August,” 14-year-old Michael Devlin responds to Rabbi Judah Hirsch’s request to turn on the lights of the synagogue for the Sabbath, and a personal relationship begins. The rabbi helps Michael with his troubles with the Falcons gang; Michael helps the rabbi with his English. The novel paints a picture of a New York City we can only hope exists.

So Manhattan is, what, 100 miles to the west? And we take the Jitney, see a show, maybe hit a museum or ogle the windows on Fifth. A nice day, but when do we just sit and listen to the voices of New York? These authors let us do exactly that.


Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.