8.31.2011

Goodbye


After blogging for over three years, it’s time to say goodbye. Thank you for reading and for responding. Marks in the Margin will continue to be live should you want to consult the Archives (Topics). And you can still send me messages and questions at rkatzev@teleport.com. It’s been a great experience for me and I hope once in a while for you too.

8.29.2011

The Book Is Dead?

I go to the gym and see people reading. I go to Powell’s Bookstore and the place is jammed with readers. In last week’s New Yorker I learn about the Dickens Universe, a summer camp at the University of California in Santa Cruz where for decades Dickens’s fans, ranging from university professors to realtors, actors, and auto mechanics, young and old, ignorant and scholarly, have been spending a week each summer reading, discussing, and listening to lectures about one of his novels.

Jill Lapore, staff writer for the New Yorker and professor of American History at Harvard attended this camp this summer. She writes:

"There is very little time to sleep at Dickens camp…Reading seminars start at eight-thirty and lectures are delivered in the morning, afternoon, and evening, followed by late-night screens of film adaptations of the week’s novel. There are daily rehearsals of an original farce, written for the occasion. In addition, there are faculty seminars, graduate writing colloquiums, and teaching workshops, not to mention Victorian tea, a Victorian dance, and, presumably, summer romance for graduate students, the less Victorian the better.”

And as if I needed anything more, I read in the Times this Sunday that Ann Patchett reminds me “Americans are still reading books.”

Regardless of who she is, and the fine novels she has written, and the relatively small size of her sample, one cannot entirely discount Patchett's reassuring words as she reports “from the front” on her recent coast to coast book tour to promote her new novel, State of Wonder.

“Night after night after night I showed up in a different bookstore and people were there with their hardbacks. Sure, I signed a couple of iPad covers, Kindle covers. I’ve got no problem with that. But just because some people like their e-readers doesn’t mean we should sweep all the remaining paperbacks in a pile and strike a match. Maybe bookstores are no longer 30,000 square feet, but they are selling books.”

The evidence: " From Porter Square Books outside of Boston and River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., to Politics and Prose in Washington and the fabulous Powell’s of Portland. From Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, to my most beloved McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., the house was packed. Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, what a bookstore that is! And the Book Stall near Chicago. (I hit them both in a single day.) Book Passage and Kepler’s and Bookshop West Portal, all in the Bay Area, and on down to the legendary Square Books in Oxford, Miss. (which, 20 years before, filled its entire window with my first novel at a time when I could not draw more than three people who were not related to me). The book, I am here to tell you, is not dead, and neither is the bookstore."

So firmly was she persuaded of the future of small, independent, locally owned bookstores, that she and her business partner have started their own. It will be called Parnassus Books and will open in Nashville, their hometown, this October. Its Mission Statement can be found here.

Is there a booklover who has not dreamed of doing something like that?


8.26.2011

Knowing & Behaving

In the August 2nd New Republic Adam Kirsch writes about several new books that discuss the experience of “ordinary Germans” during the Holocaust. The problem of the “ordinary German” as Kirsch puts it is to try to explain how “citizens from an advanced society, famous for its culture and education—could be led in the space of a few years to commit a genocide of the Jews.”

Of course, we know that this problem is not confined to citizens of Germany; it is the problem of any human being when asked by an authority under extreme pressure to attack their neighbors. And who among us believes that they would do that?

Can we learn anything from historical events like this? Is knowing about them sufficient to immunize us against strong pressures to commit violence against another human being? This is the age-old question of the effect of knowledge on behavior.

The research on this question is far from cheering. In study after study it has been demonstrated that prior knowledge or anticipating an event has very little effect on how we will behave when put in similar one. Perhaps the most relevant example of the situation Kirsch is talking about is the well-known experiments of Stanley Milgram in which individuals where asked to deliver shock to another human being in the guise of a study on the effects of punishment.

To study the effects of knowing about these studies, another experimenter gave subjects a good deal of written and verbally presented information about Milgram’s experiments. Then the subjects were asked to serve as experimenters themselves in a similar study. Of the 24 informed subjects only 1 resisted the demands of the authority to continue the experiment in spite of the clearly visible distress of the confederates who were ostensibly given shock for errors they made on a learning task. The author writes:

“For these participants, knowing that people are willing to coerce others and cause distress to obtain and scientific understanding and feeling the original Milgram study to be personally distasteful, did not preclude behaving in a manner similar to that obtained in the original Milgram study.”

The increasing public awareness of Milgram's research provides an additional test of this effect. His research has been widely written about in the media, portrayed in television plays and films, and was the subject of at least one popular song. The studies have been discussed in countless public forums and many academic disciplines. Milgram's work is as well known as any program of research in psychology.

If, as a result of this dissemination process, individuals have become more "enlightened" about unreasonable demands of authority, one might expect a diminution in the overall level of obedience in ensuing replications of his work. However, a recent analysis of these replications, which covered a 22-year period, from 1963 to 1983, found no systematic decline in obedience during this time. The overall level of obedience in the most recent studies was just as high (65% of the subjects) as it was in the earlier ones.

What can be done in the face of such evidence? It is difficult to discount it, given the various situations in both the laboratory and under natural conditions in which it has been observed. Frankly, I am not sure there’s much that can be done. In a situation of strong social pressure, even the strongest succumb.

Kirsch concludes: “A society than can only be saved by heroes is not going to be saved: there will always be far more selfish and corrupt people, than good but ineffectual ones...Someone such as Sophie School, the twenty-one year old who distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets in Munich knowing it would lead to her death, deserves everlasting praise … but she knew full well that she was not going to stop Hitler. It took the Allied armies and many millions of death to do that.”


References
Shelton, G. A. (1982). The generalization of understanding to behavior: The role of perspective in enlightenment. Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Blass, T (2000). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. In Thomas Blass (Ed) Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


8.24.2011

Fait Divers

Teju Cole whose recent novel, Open City, I greatly admired, is now at work on a non-fiction account of Lagos, his hometown for seventeen years. He writes, “And what is there to know about a city beyond statistics, beyond population, tallest buildings, GDP, is individual human experience.”

To capture this aspect of city life Cole was drawn to what he refers to as “small news,” the sort of thing your read about in the local newspapers and crime sections, or see on the Internet. He says this type of writing is best described by a French term, fait divers, which he translates as “incidents” or “various things.” Here are two examples he mentions:

“Raol G, of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.”

Another: “A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.”

Both of these fait divers are short, small incidents with large effects, at times ironic in tone, at other times rather humorous on first reading. Cole has begun posting these pieces on his Twitter page. He says that what all his small fates have in common is their “closed circle of the story. It needs neither elaboration nor sequel.”

He also claims you never see anything like them in the New York Times. I disagree. Although not quite as short as those he has selected, the Times routinely publishes short local tales in its daily New York news section and even shorter ones in its Metropolitan Diary column that appears each Monday in the West Coast edition. Here is one from last month:

“I was on my way to the local library near Battery Park City to return a book of short stories, and made several stops on my way … when I realized that somehow in one of the establishments, I had misplaced the book. The librarian informed me that if the book didn’t turn up, it was going to cost me $25. I complained that I wouldn’t mind so much if the stories and the writing hadn’t been so awful. I made a pest of myself with the Duane Reade [pharmacy] manager, who promised to keep an eye out for the book. Two weeks later, there at the drugstore’s service desk was the book. A young woman had returned it several days before and told the manager not to bother reading it, as none of the stories were interesting.”

I have also been collecting incidents or happenings from my daily encounters in whatever city I happen to be in; I call them Urban Tales. Here are a few examples:

The Fish Market
Annie is gone. She had not been there all week. I assumed she was on vacation. But she was not there the following week either. They told me she was working at another store on the other side of town now. I couldn't believe it. We spoke often, called each other by our first name. We exchanged stories. The weather, the bus trip over, where the ahi tuna came from this week. She was my friend. I felt I let her down if I didn't buy something each time I went in. She never told me she was leaving.

Happy Birthday
I like going to Sunday matinees, especially when it is cold and rainy and as dark as it usually is outside around here. As I was going to my seat on such a recent Sunday afternoon, a young woman came down before the audience and asked for everyone's attention. She announced to the puzzled assembly that it was her mother's birthday, indeed, a very special one, and asked it we would all join together to sing happy birthday to her. Without a moment's delay everyone took up her request and sang a lusty Happy Birthday to her mom, Sandy.

Next Door
I used to live high up in the hills above Portland before moving to the neighborhood below. One day, in the market up there, a man approached and greeted me as if we were old friends. I stopped, stared at him for much too long, looking puzzled and uncertain. Eventually I confessed I had no idea who he was. He didn't pause a moment to tell me he was X, my next-door neighbor. We had been neighbors for three years up there in the hills above the city.

I am indebted to Macy Halford on the Book Bench for introducing me to Teju Cole’s Fait Divers.

8.22.2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo

At times we scarcely notice significant historical events when they occur. They fail to catch our attention, in one ear out the other as they say. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovia (between April 1992 and December 1994) and the siege of Sarajevo was a case in point for me.

Yes, I was dimly aware of the war, must have read about it in the paper, knew that NATO intervention finally brought the war to an end. But in the midst of all the other news of those days and the work I was doing, the reality of human experience simply flew right by me.

Sometimes a work of fiction can recapture what that was like and in particular what it was like for the people who struggled day after day during those years to stay alive as the shelling and sniper fire continued. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo accomplished this for me. Instead of focusing on the political and military picture, his novel recounts the experiences of three unconnected individuals.

The fourth character, the cellist of Sarajevo, is based on the real-life musician, Verdran Smailovic, who had been the cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra before the war began. Perhaps you remember the day early in the war when a mortar shell killed twenty-two citizens of Sarajevo as they stood in line to buy bread. Smailovic witnessed their deaths and to commemorate each individual he vowed to play (Albinoni’s Adagio) in the square where they died for twenty-two consecutive days.

While this is all we learn about the cellist, Galloway’s novel unfolds the tale of three individuals who at various times come to hear him perform.

“Some days he had an audience. Other days there was so much shelling that no one in their right mind would linger in the street. It didn’t appear to make any difference to him. He always played exactly the same way.”

Arrow is a sniper who is given the task of protecting the cellist. She is far and away the most interesting character in the novel and her skills as a sniper are legendary. Dragan is a man who spends hours traveling to an old brewery to get water for his family and ungrateful neighbor. Kenan is a baker trying to cross a dangerous intersection to get to his job.

But we really learn nothing about the cellist, his motivation, and thoughts as he plays during those twenty-two straight days. Nor do we learn much about what his music brought to the people of Sarajevo? Did it bring them any sense of hope, hope that the war would end, that the city would be rebuilt, and some degree of normalcy would return?

Indeed, with the exception of Arrow, the characters seemed to me almost lifeless. Maybe that’s what war does to many of those who have to live through it. They simply give up on living.

The real drama, the real emotion of The Cellist of Sarajevo comes from Galloway’s depiction of the city, the destruction, the damage and those who didn’t make it across the intersection or were killed during a mortar attack.

It was reported that nearly 10,000 people were killed or unaccounted for, including over 1,500 children during the siege while an additional 56,000 people were wounded; half were children. Electricity was rarely available, food and water were scarce, the only thing that was plentiful was fear and the daily shelling from the hills surrounding the city. In the afterword Galloway says an average of 329 shells hit the city each day, with a one day high of 3,777. Is it any wonder there was an abundance of fear?

“Dragan knows he won’t ever be able to forget what has happened here. If the war ends, if life goes back to some semblance of how it once was, and he survives, he won’t be able to explain how any of it was possible. An explanation implies a logic, but there’s no logic to Sarajevo now.”





8.17.2011

A Science of Literature?

I’ve been reading the first issue of the new journal, The Scientific Study of Literature. Is a science of literature possible?

Occasionally we read about a study that claims to be a scientific investigation of literature. For instance there are increasing accounts of the evolutionary origins of stories and story telling, others on what is happening to various areas of the brain as we read a book, and still others that describe computerized research on a large body of textual materials, say an author’s work or a particular historical period.

However, the first issue of the new journal departs from these approaches in emphasizing the experience of reader and the interaction of the reader with the text, rather than the interpretation of texts, the method that currently tends to dominate literary scholarship.

Research on literary processing is carried out in the laboratory with a group of individuals as they read specially designed reading materials. Only rarely are published sections of works of fiction or non-fiction examined, either in the lab or under natural (non-laboratory) conditions.

In discussing the current state of the field Dixon and Bortolussi distinguish between cognitive processing and that focused on emotion and affective reactions. “Personal resonance” is a term that investigators in this area use to contrast a literary text from an expository one. In a representative study it was reported that while both types of text prompted an equal number of recollections, those elicited by a literary text were more personal, evoking scenes in which the reader was involved.

Surely that is one of the reasons for the great appeal of reading works of literature and why individuals become so absorbed in the experience. It reminds us of a similar experience or elicits an association with some personal meaning, sometimes having nothing to do with what is meant in the text.

In his article, “The Individual in the Scientific Study of Literature,” Raymond Gibbs writes: “Yet I am continually struck by an overwhelming sense that reading is so deeply personal, and the content and workings of my mind so individual, that it would be near impossible to describe my literary experiences in any way as something shared with others.”

And then, he poses the central question for this field: How is it possible to use a reader’s unique response to literature as the basis for general scientific principles?

In any study of a group of individuals, a large percentage will vary from the general statistical trend. Gibbs reminds us of the countless ways these individuals differ: gender, age, occupation, education, social status, language, culture, geographic origin, religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, personality, physiological differences, etc. Can a general theory of literary responding be derived when confronted with these differences and the complex ways they interact with one other?

My own view, one expressed occasionally in previous posts, is that other than recognizing this fact, such generalizations are impossible. And that is why I find the entire field rather anomalous and more closely allied with case studies, clinical research, and single subject designs.

Long ago Virginia Woolf said all this much better in her essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” “In the first place, I want to emphasize the not of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions…. After all what laws can be laid down about books?”



8.15.2011

Testing the Waters


Blind Lunch
One day when I was walking around Florence I chanced upon a store-front window, looked in and saw a man and a woman having lunch together. That was all—one table, two chairs, two people eating lunch. By the door was a sign directing the reader to a website where I subsequently read the following message (translated from the Italian):

Sharing a private moment with a stranger, it means giving up the surprise, let go and let himself be invaded. Blind Lunch takes place within a window, the only boundary that separates the public from the private sector, which faces directly onto the street. The space is transformed into a cozy and intimate with a central dining table, a meeting point where two people unknown to each other, eat a meal together.

Fancy that, I thought. Wouldn’t it be amusing, perhaps even interesting, to give it a try? I sent an email (in English) to the indicated address expressing my interest and never heard a word in reply.

Experimenting Society
A note from the Web a while ago: Today Vermont is set to make history by becoming the first state in the nation to offer universal, single-payer healthcare when Gov. Peter Shumlin signs its healthcare reform bill into law. The Vermont plan, called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will attempt to stem rising medical care prices and provide universal coverage... Dr. Deb Richter, president of Vermont Health Care for All … moved from Buffalo, New York, to Vermont in 1999 to advocate for a universal, single-payer healthcare system in the state. Gov. Shumlin calls her the “backbone” of the grassroots effort that helped persuade the Democratic-led state legislature to pass the bill this spring.

Here is an example of an experimenting society at its best. First try something new on a small scale. Then evaluate the results. If the outcome is positive, continue with the program. If it isn’t, try something different. This approach is easy to do when applied to limited number of people. Making changes, as well as mistakes is less risky in small groups or organizations. I have found that to be the case whenever I have observed the origin of significant social changes. The smaller the country, state or academic setting, the easier it is to experiment with change and then in light of its effects, decide whether or not to apply it on a larger scale.

Study Thyself
Reading a book isn’t quite as simple as it used to be. Now a reader is given a choice, print version, Kindle, iPad1 or iPad2, Nook, or mobile phone. It is rather like going to the market to get some cereal where you find yourself confronted with one long shelf above another of a countless number of choices. In the Times last week Nick Bilton describes the way he went about deciding how to read a book. He writes,

“This might not sound so extraordinary, but I didn’t just read a book in print, on an e-reader or even a mobile phone. Instead I read a book on dozens of devices….I wanted to answer a question I often hear: which e-reader or tablet is the best for reading books?”

The book he selected was The Alienist by Caleb Carr and he read sections of it on eleven (11) different devices plus “a crumply old print paperback.” The gadgets included the Kindle, the Google Nexus S Android phone, the iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy Tablet, the iPads (1 & 2), the Nook and laptop computer. For each device he describes its desirable and undesirable features.

A single person trying various approaches by themselves (self-experiments) or with one other individual (single subject research) often leads to important discoveries in science. Examples include Herman Ebbinghaus on memory, Freud on the unconscious, and Albert Hoffman on psychedelic drugs. While Bilton was far from doing scientific research he was going about the decision on how best to read a book by doing a little “experiment” on himself.

While he says reading the paperback version of the novel was frustrating because he couldn’t easily look up things as he could on his iPhone, in the end, he concluded to my immense pleasure, “But if money is tight, go for print. My used paperback cost only $4.” Not only that but he could mark it up any old way he liked.

8.12.2011

On Facebook

And why had he never had a friend as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado--A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death?
Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

I don’t understand Facebook or Twitter or really texting either. It’s not that I’m opposed to them. Rather, I simply don’t get their appeal. Of course, many explanations have been proposed and I’ve not found anything too objectionable in these accounts. But what I don’t understand is the purpose, the goal, the raison d’etre of communicating this way.

It is said that their goal is connection, to connect with one friends make new ones, find out what’s going on with them. What a strange way to make contact with another person, sometimes hundreds of persons, many of whom you’ve never met or spoken with, or have the slightest idea who they are.

In her essay Generation Why? in the New York Review of Books (November 2010) Zadie Smith also asks,

Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….”

Doesn’t anyone wonder about the nature of that connection, its quality, durability, the degree to which it is a genuine connection? Currently there are said to be over 750 million active users, half of whom log on to Facebook on any given day. The average user is said to have 130 friends, although a “friend” of mine has over 850 friends, and two members of my family have well over 800. What does it mean to have over 800 friends anyway? Is this some kind of a contest to see how many friends we can accumulate?

How can anyone have that many friends? Why are we not discussing the value of this kind of friendship?

I pose these questions not because I was raised during the letter-writing era, followed by the telephone and now e-mailing or that I’m simply an old grouch. I find some of these new communication techniques and the Internet itself a bit of a miracle.

Do Facebook members think much about the quality their connections? As far as I can tell the exchanges that occur on its website seem silly, rather superficial and scarcely the stuff of what we mean, or used to mean, by a friendship.

“Yes.” “Haha, that’s very funny.” “What a beautiful couple.” “Great photos.” “We're hard core: waited 2 hrs for screen door brunch. After a super grueling aerial class this morning I was so hungry! But the summer veggie hash was so worth the wait!” “New Job, new puppy, new car, new desk, new computer, new year since birth--same old guy.” There are an enormous number of Likes and X is now friends with Y and lots of Yeses.

Isn’t this slightly ridiculous?

In response I suppose devoted Facebookers could always quote Charles Lamb who in a letter to Coleridge wrote about his how he felt about his long suffering sister: “’Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.”

Eventually Smith closed her account at Facebook and writes: “The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too,… If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.”


8.10.2011

Future of Bookmarks

With the ascendancy of the e-book, what will become those odd-little bookmarks that to mark the page we last read in paper books? I don’t know if you feel the same, but I’m very particular about the bookmarks I use. They have to be just the right size. I don’t like small ones like the business cards or bus tickets that some readers use; they tend to fall out of books or get lost somewhere, so they are really quite useless. I don’t much care for paper clips that crease the pages of the books I am reading or those printed on flimsy paper that tear or bend easily.

The bookmarks at the legendary Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, used to be like that. I never liked them at all and always recycled them whenever I was given one. But Mr. Powell must have taken my displeasure to heart for a few years ago he stiffened up his bookmarks so that they now remain in the books I buy there, rather than on the stack of papers in my recycling box.

One of my favorite bookmarks was given out by a small, independent bookstore in Portland that I had been going to for almost 40 years. Sadly, the bookstore is no longer in business which isn’t surprising given the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The store had an almost perfect bookmark, one that remained the same during all the years I went there. They kept doling them out from an inventory that must have numbered in the millions and I still have enough for a lifetime of reading.

Every now and then I read a book that is a treasure. Some of these are reference books, like the dictionary or encyclopedia. Others are books of paintings or photographs. These books clearly require one of the cherished bookmarks that I’ve collected over the years in my travels. These usually turn out to be made of thin leather with a calligraphed message or distinctive symbol printed on the front side. Or the book might already include one those colorful ribbon strips that sometimes accompany those really fine and important books, as well as all my red Michelin guides of hotels and restaurants in Italy and France.

These narrow cloth or silk ribbons that are bound into the book at the top of the spine are said to be the eighteenth and nineteenth century precursors of the modern bookmark. It is a mystery why they aren’t included in every book. Wonder of wonders, the Paris Review now includes a bookmark with each issue. Such a simple idea--promote the periodical, aid those who take their time reading the material, point the way to the publisher’s website where the reader can search the archive, listen to poems, and by golly also subscribe. Then again, maybe it is not such a good idea, since if it is widely adopted it will likely be the end of bookmark craftsman, as well as the pleasure of collecting distinctive bookmarks.

I keep my most valued bookmarks in a very special box upon my desk. The box is about the size of an egg carton, opens with a hinged lid, and has always sat upon my desk ever since I received it. It has more than enough room to house all my favorite bookmarks. The lid is appropriately calligraphed with passages about writing: “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream (Jorge Luis Borges). If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it (Toni Morrison). True ease in writing comes from art not chance (Proust).”

Bookmarks have not escaped the wonders of the electronic age either. A 21st century reader can now purchase a digital bookmark with a built-in dictionary, the ever-popular Selco Bookmark Dictionary II. It is said to hold 130,000 words with “definitions thoroughly revised and updated.” They can be had at Amazon for a little over $35. Whoever heard of paying for a bookmark?

The "keypad" of this gadget is no thicker than your ordinary bookmark. However, it is attached at the top to a modest-size LCD screen that not only displays the meaning of words, but also the date and time of day for readers who can’t live without this information. As if that is not enough, it also incorporates a calculator, for readers trying to solve Fermant’s Last Theorem. I have been rendered speechless by the thing. The screen sits up upon the top of the keypad, like Humpty-Dumpty on his wall. I have a feeling it won’t be long before my jazzy new Selco Bookmark Dictionary II will experience a similar fate.

If you prefer to make your own, see this clever suggestion. And for readers ready to upgrade to a four-star deluxe bookmark, I can report that Tiffany’s new bamboo leaf/scarab bookmark in sterling silver is available at the time of this writing. I saw it advertised in the Times a while ago and was duly informed it is designed for bookmark lovers who want to add a touch of glamour to their favorite coffee table book. Each one is carefully embossed with bamboo stalks and a tiny copper and gold beetle. At $120, it would make a perfect gift for all your bookish friends. You don’t live near a Tiffany store? No problem: just go to their online store to order this gem. Better do so before they run out; I am sure the supply is limited.


8.08.2011

Briefs

My reading notebook, otherwise known as my commonplace book, consists of two sections now—Briefs and Passages. Passages are the notable thoughts and ideas I collect from the books and periodicals I read. Briefs are provocative comments, a word or phrase, a quotation from a random collection of almost anything I read—a newspaper, blog, journal, essay, etc. The Briefs for each year are usually just a few pages while the Passages can be anywhere from 50 to 60 pages. To give you an idea of the kinds of things I collect in the Briefs, here are those I saved last year.


I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it. William Faulkner

I have so much to say about the importance of memory…the role of memory in love. One way in which we love people is by remembering them, maybe even after they’ve forgotten things about themselves. I find the idea of bearing witness very beautiful. The idea that to love someone is to bear witness to his or her life comes up a lot in the book [Man Walks Into a Room]. I find the idea of bearing witness very beautiful. Nicole Krauss

But great books force people to engage in the human conversation. They teach empathy and they teach compassion. They remind us of all the words there are beyond whatever. In a large sense, this is what Man Walks into a Room is about. It's about a man who becomes disengaged, and who—after a lot of loneliness and pain—relearns the difficult beauty of engagement. If I could reduce what matters to me most right now to a single word, it would be simply that: engagement. Nicole Krauss

“… you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.” William Cory

Miracles can happen in the writing process. More often than in life, unfortunately. David Grossman

…that we have these ideals which are extraordinarily powerful, and extraordinarily high and our inability to execute them is tragic…. Osker Eustis

The world’s most urgent environmental need, he has come to believe, is not for some miraculous seeming scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented transformation of human behavior. David Owen

I have one opinion—one should evaluate things—which is strongly held. I’m never unhappy with the results. I haven’t yet seen a result I didn’t like. Esther Duflo

Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor but on a more complex scale….The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. David Mitchell

“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Writing instructs and that doesn’t necessarily make it dictatorial, elitist, self-righteous or school-marmish. A good writer writes with authority. He has something to give us – pleasure, insight, information – something he convinces us is worth having. He may do so by arguing, explaining, seducing or amusing. An exchange takes place: He convinces us to listen and we give our attentiveness, which is respectful but neither na├»ve nor credulous. If he tries too hard – if he tailgates like an overheated driver – the contract is broken and we close the book. If we are writers and don't uphold our end of the bargain, we're soon out of readers. Patrick Kurp

It is tempting to think of public resistance to particularly egregious Supreme Court decisions. Suppose, for example, that there had been a popular uprising against Bush v. Gore in 2000—that the recount of votes in Florida had gone forward despite the Court’s decision and that Al Gore had won and become president. The United States would not have invaded Iraq. Lax financial regulation would not have brought us close to an economic meltdown. John Roberts and Samuel Alito would not be on the Supreme Court. The fantasy has its appeal. But the price would have been high: the loss of fealty to the one institution that holds this vast, disparate country together: law….”The Democrats as well as the Republicans followed the decision. They did so peacefully.” It was, he said, “the most remarkable…feature of the case.” Anthony Lewis


8.05.2011

Varieties of Hunger

In an interview about her novel The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman was asked why she chose the title. She replied:

This is a book about hunger and about acquisition; it’s a book about people deciding how to live. The cookbook motif raises interesting questions: Is it better to follow a formula or recipe as you live your life? Or improvise as you go along?

By “hunger” I think Goodman is also referring to a strong desire, a longing both for ideas and love, for success and riches.

How sad he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end.

Emily, the older of two contrasting sisters and CEO of Veritech, a software firm in Silicon Valley, longs for Jonathan, the founder of ISIS, a software firm in Cambridge.

He needed Emily to believe in him so that he could believe in himself.

Jess(amine, Emily’s younger sister, a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley longs for wisdom, literature and eventually George, a Microsoft millionaire, bookstore owner and rare book collector.

…he was constantly disappointed. Dissatisfied. He was always looking for the next thing. He had the mind of a researcher, restlessly turning corners, seeking out new questions.

Both sisters “hunger” for the truth about their mother who died when they were very young.

Information wasn’t always such a gift; it was also a loss, the end of possibility.

Meanwhile, George yearns for Jess.

…he never stopped desiring the one he couldn’t find…The one he couldn’t find became the one he couldn’t have.

Orion, the software programmer for ISIS, yearns for Sorel, an independent soul, who also works at ISIS.

…he grew more solitary, even as he hungered for companionship.

In a word, every person depicted in this intellectual rich novel hungers after one thing or another—fulfillment, knowledge, achievement and love.

I prefer the chase; I like pursuit better than so-called fulfillment. Everybody does.


Is all of this longing worth the chase? Goodman concludes with this question:

What profit is it to own so many things, to stroll in gardens and enjoy previous jewels, to each such food and drink such wine? In the end, what good is it to collect such riches? Every wall will crumble. The beautiful will wither and decay.

8.03.2011

Aesthetic Experience


“I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

I am often asked why I keep returning to Florence. In her novel The Cookbook Collector Allegra Goodman answers for me.

"You forget that some aesthetic experiences satisfy…There is such a thing as excellence, and I do know it when I see it, and when I find it I am fulfilled. I want to keep on hunting endlessly. If I’m restless, that’s not because I want to be or because I can’t help it. I am not chronically dissatisfied; I’ve been disappointed. There’s a difference. When I discover something beautiful and right and rare, I’m happy. I’m content."

That is precisely the way I feel about Florence. For me there can never be another place like it. I am content there. Totally. That’s the way it has always been. I feel no need for anything more and am forever grateful for having found it and been given the chance to be there so often.

Some people want to travel, they want to go up the Amazon, explore the Great Barrier Reef, see the cheery blossoms in Japan. I am not one of them. When you find perfection and beauty, when you find a place that feels like home, your querencia, isn’t that sufficient?

Why do we call something beautiful? Why do we say Florence is a beautiful place? What is it that we mean when we say something is beautiful?

David Hume wrote: “Beauty is not a quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

Hume has got it just right, as usual. And in The Maytrees Annie Dillard writes:

“In her last years Lou puzzled over beauty…She never knew what to make of it. Certainly nothing in Darwin, in chemical evolution, in optics or psychology or even cognitive anthropology gave it a show."

And so I continue to “puzzle over” beauty until I return to Florence where it is on “show” everywhere.