Words and Actions

Over and over again, I find I cannot recall a passage that I added to my Commonplace Book a relatively short time ago or those, of course, that stretch back over the years. Clearly I need to review my collection more often, something I really only do at the end of the year or from time to time when I am searching for quotations from a particular book or article.

While I collect all these thoughts and words of wisdom, they rarely come to mind when they might be useful or influence my behavior when I wish them to. There is such a gap between words and actions, between thoughts and behavior. I put these words to paper in the hope that they will narrow this gap, that I will be able to make more intelligent decisions, and do so with ease. But that rarely, if ever, happens.

In a review of Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

“The predicament of Gessen's characters, as it is likely to be the preeminent predicament of Gessen's generation, is the disparity between what one has learned of history and the possibilities of making use of that knowledge in one's life…”

This is exactly what I am talking about. As the central character laments: "I have spent …most of my life in libraries." Here again, there is that gap between what you are learning in the library and what you are able to do when you are away from your books.

At a dinner party a few weeks ago, someone used in jest the phrase "the meaning of life." I instantly recalled reading that very morning a passage in Joseph's Epstein's essay “Talking to Oneself” that dealt with the meaning of life. For the life of me I could not recall the passage, although I thought it might add to the exchange.

Epstein quotes Edward Shils who, when the son of a friend of his committed suicide, leaving a note saying that he found life meaningless, responded: "of course it is meaningless, but most of us are fortunately too busy to dwell on its meaningless." But I couldn't recall it; yet it was only a few hours before that I had read it and had, in fact, copied it into my commonplace book.

This example is instructive: Reading is a relatively passive activity. Indeed, some read so quickly that it is hard to imagine they are catching much of anything. But for even the most focused readers it is fair to say that little is recalled or recorded in any permanent fashion. Other than those who have a photographic memory, unless the reader makes a deliberate effort to mark a given passage, then review it, perhaps copy it someplace or indeed memorize it, it should not be surprising that reading does not guarantee recall and even less surprising that the information is not automatically or otherwise translated into action.

What is necessary to achieve that?


Derek Rubin

I read Derek Rubin's anthology, Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) A Jewish American Writer, of Jewish writer's essays earlier in the year. I don't normally think of Jewish writers as Jewish writers and most of those who wrote essays for this volume don't view themselves that way either even though they often write about Jewish characters and situations.

I don't recall anything special about this book, nor did I make any progress in coming to terms with being Jewish. It seems that gaining a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish matters to me now in a way it never did before.

That is the way I always feel each time I read one of these commentaries on what being Jewish means to Jewish individuals. It remains one of those unanswered questions that nibble away at the boundaries of my mind, never looming so large, however, that I really get serious about the matter.

Here are some passages I noted in the book. The first two are from Rubin's Introduction and the remaining are from some of the authors included in this volume.

…only in her writing can she feel fully at home…

…as the immigrant experience recedes into the past and a younger generation of Jewish writers emerges, fully acculturated and well integrated into American suburban and middle and upper middle class urban life, so Jewish literature will cease to exist as a rich, distinct presence in the American literary landscape.

Saul Bellow
Writers and criminals have often found that they had much in common. And correctional officials seem to understand thanks to psychology courses they take in the universities that it is excellent therapy to write books and that it may soften the hearts of criminals to record their experiences.

I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.

…his soul could not bear to be cut off from its kind, and that was why he did his work in cafes.

Rebecca Goldstein
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that examines the grounds for beliefs, asking such questions as what constitutes good grounds for various sorts of beliefs….In epistemology the difference between grounded and ungrounded beliefs makes all the difference.

…hypervigilance in regard to beliefs…

My hopeless passion for fiction had seemed to me, back in the days when I thought of myself as a real philosopher (which I no longer do), a rather shameful little aberration.

Deep down in the regions of the psyche where fiction is born, regions supremely indifferent to criteria of rationality, being Jewish seems to matter to me more than I can explain or justify.

Storytelling has a high moral role to play in Judaism.

Jonathan Rosen

…becoming a writer meant coming to terms with who you actually are.

Allegra Goodman

…a community of passionate readers in an increasingly difficult world for serious fiction

…self-consciousness, ambivalence, and guilt about the Jewish tradition…

Philip Roth
Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct; or, if they are available, they are not possible, or manageable, or legal, or advisable, or even necessary to the business of living. We may not even know that we have such a range of feelings and responses until we have come into contact with the work of fiction.

And this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, if of considerable value to man and society.

The test of any literary work is not how broad is its range or representation—for all that breadth may be characteristic of a kind of narrative—but the depth with which the writer reveals whatever he has chosen to represent.

Erica Jong
And what is a Jew? A Jew is a person who is safe nowhere…


Susan Sontag

Illness colors everything, especially a serious one. Life seems bleak, there is little that is worth doing, eating is a chore, as is everything else. I suspect that is the reaction of many who are struck with a debilitating disease or injury, although we do hear about an almost equal number who never abandon life, even when it is virtually impossible for them to live it.

Susan Sontag was one of those individuals. Like others so struck, they command our admiration. Of course, there is much else about Susan Sontag to admire, including her recently published and widely reviewed first volume of her journal, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963.

David Rieff, Sontag's son, has written about her mother's lengthy battle with cancer in Swimming in a Sea of Death. It was a tough book to read as Rieff describes in detail Sontag's three horrible bouts of cancer that one by one descended upon her body and ravished it.

But she never gave up hope that she would be cured by one of the new techniques for treating cancer, each one grimmer than the next. She studied the medical literature, traveled the world to visit doctors and hospitals that specialized in their application, sure in the knowledge that she would be cured.

Her last bout did her in and Rieff struggles with the question throughout his account of whether or not to tell her that there was no cure for it (myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Here are the some of the passages I made note of in the book.

“I curse death.” I cannot help it. Elias Canetti

She loved living and, if anything, both her appetite for experience and her hopes for what she would accomplish as a writer had only increased as she grew older. If I had to choose one word to describe her way of being in the world it would be "avidity." There was nothing she did not want to see or do or try to know.

…she writes that she is an eternal student and speculates whether, in the end, that is what she is best at.

…irrational human wish to ascribe meaning when no meaning is really on offer.

“The statistics only get you so far. There are always people on the tail end of the curve.” Jerome Groopman.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Real commitment for her was always radical.

Above all, information needed to be collected. Information meant control, did it not?

Her apartment became a kind of research unit (it had always been more office and library than home)…

…brochure is written in the language of hope, but in fact offers almost none to anyone reading it with care.

But the gap here between language and reality is simply too great

Thomas Mann once wrote that a writer is someone for whom writing is harder that it is for anyone else.

You did not give in to cancer, you fought it, and if you fought hard enough and, above all, intelligently enough, there was a chance that you could win.

…but deferring completely to another person is, if anything, an even more impossible project. For such deference would render one without personality—without the very qualities, in other words, upon which one's relations with the other person are grounded.

…for my mother information had become synonymous with hope: the more you knew, the better your chances of cheating death once more.

Looking back, I wonder if there is any silence worse than the silence of the sick room.

…love was no consolation to her as she fought so desperately for her life.

From a political and, increasingly, an ecological standpoint as well, she had no great hope that the world would get any better and, at the very least, the strong intuition that it would probably get a great deal worse.

…to understand an illusion is not to rid yourself of it…

And if so many people die of cancer today, doctors say that this is at least in part because we are not dying of other diseases when we are younger.

“…as long as one's thoughts are spoken and written down, they'll form another life, they won't perish with the flesh.” Bei Dao


Harold Pinter

In 2007, a revival of Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming was presented in New York. John Lahr’s review of the play, accompanied by a profile of Pinter appeared in the December 24th/December 31st issue of The New Yorker.

Lahr discusses the uncertainty and ambiguity that usually characterizes Pinter’s plays and clarifies Pinter underlying rationale for expressing himself this way. The profile is interspersed with biographical details of Pinter’s life, including his often-voiced political convictions. Here are a few of the passages that I made note of in Lahr’s provocative review/profile

Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after I understood the eloquence of the unspoken.

…the play’s spectacular combination of mystery and rigor had taught me something new about life, about language, about the nature of dramatic storytelling.

The truth, in other words, is anybody’s guess. Meaning is what you make it.

The Homecoming is ultimately not about the house or the woman but about whose perception of reality will prevail.

What it has to do with is thought: what has just been said and how to respond to what has been said.

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.

What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened? Pinter’s play’s reenact this difficulty of knowing.

Harold didn’t want something that made a statement, because a statement was lacking in ambiguity.

“I am writing nothing and can write nothing,” he said …in 1970. “I don’t know why. It’s a very bad feeling, I know that, but I must say I want more than anything else to fill up a blank page again, and to feel that strange thing happen, birth through fingertips. When you can’t write, you feel you’ve been banished from yourself.

The sound, like that of a stone dropped into a well, registers the depth of the distance between them.

I still have quite a bit of ferocity knocking around. It’s how to embody it.

…his easy access to his own turbulent internal climate…

“The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them."


Harold Pinter

"Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?"
Lawrence Durrell

Harold Pinter’s plays are questions. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? There is a sense of incompleteness about his plays. And that is why you remember them and continue to ruminate about them. Not long before his death yesterday, he had written to his wife:

(To A)
I shall miss you so much when I’m dead
The loveliest of smiles
The softness of your body in our bed

My everlasting bride
Remember that when I am dead
You are forever alive in my heart and my head

Last year I read a slim volume, Mel Gussow Conversations with Pinter, that reprints a series of lengthy interviews he had with Mel Gussow, drama critic for the New York Times. I made note of a number of passages in which together they talk about his life and work. Their exchanges provide a glimpse of the sources for the ambiguity and questioning that characterizes his plays.

…the mistiness of the past

There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.

It would be marvelous to find that I was someone else.

You’re trapped with yourself all your damned life. I just get bored with myself and have enough of myself so often.

What the hell is there to say?

…a man of my age and temperament and disposition is slightly out of kilter with the needs of the time.

The things on television which we took for granted for so many years—the drama, the serious discussions, religious programmes, debates, documentaries—if you come back in ten years’ time, it will be over. It will just be various degrees of rubbish.

The actual facts simply do not correspond to the language used about those facts.

The image of a fellow of his age, middle twenties, just not wanting to get out of bed, I think is something we know quite a lot about.

Whatever I’m writing about, it’s a celebration. What you’re celebrating is the ability to write. There’s an excitement about it that certainly transcends whatever you might have been doing five minutes before. It takes you way out into another country.

…a society in a very surreptitious and appalling way is grinding you into the dust.

The theatre was my world. It was the only world I was happy in.

I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know how to go anywhere. I couldn’t continue to write plays about people who had been asleep for 29 years, although I’m sure a lot of other people have been asleep for 29 years. I felt obliged to investigate other territory, and I didn’t know how to do it.

How many thousands of premarital counseling groups that meet annually in North America use fiction as part of the process? Few or none, I’d be willing to bet. Yet what could be a more obvious source of case history, of example, and warning than stories of marriage?

Experience shows that fiction and poetry are very effective in permitting disclosure, the sharing of feelings and experiences that are otherwise very difficult to voice in a group.


On Reading

We hear from every quarter in this country that no one reads anymore, that television and now the Web have all but killed off the pleasures of the page. We bemoan the closing of one bookstore after another and the alleged sharp decline in literary reading documented in the recent National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report.

However, I am not entirely convinced by all these obituaries for reading, especially the widely cited NEA analysis. The study reports the findings of a large sample survey of over 17,000 individuals conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002. The survey was designed to learn more about public participation in the arts, including the extent of literary reading in this country.

To measure literary activity, individuals were asked to indicate whether or not they had read at least one literary work during the past year. A “literary work” was defined as a novel, short story, play, or work of poetry. A reported decline in literary reading of 10% (56.9% to 46.7%) from 1982 to 2002 was the finding that aroused the greatest concern. This trend was observed for all the demographic groups that were studied— gender, ethnicity, educational level, and age, with the steepest decline of 28% reported for those in the youngest age group, those between 18 and 24.

In my view, the study is flawed in several respects. The definition of literary work is unnecessarily narrow, as a person who has read a memoir, collection of essays, or historical biography is not counted as a literary reader. Similarly, a person who has read the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in a Russian literature course is also excluded from this group. Moreover, the measurement procedure does not distinguish between various types of literary works—reading a book of Ogden Nash poems is counted equivalent to reading Tennyson, Proust, or Keats.

In truth, as documented in the report, a significant amount of reading takes place in this country, as almost 60% of the US population indicated they have engaged in some form of literary activity during 2002. Moreover, given the rise in the population since 1982 (the year of the previous NEA survey), more people are reading literature today in terms of absolute numbers than in 1982, 205 million compared to 168 million, values that cannot be readily discounted.

In a word, the implications of the NEA report may not be quite as dire as its authors imply. Perhaps individuals are reading more literary works on the Internet or in an e-book version. Perhaps they are reading other literary genres, such as biography or political commentary or listening to literary works on tape, or simply spending more time reading periodicals and newspapers that on some accounts have the same benefits as the novels, short stories, plays, or works of poetry measured in the survey.

Also, 2002 may not have been a representative year, as the profound effects of the attack on this nation in September of the preceding year were still very salient. Sampling year-to-year trends, rather than ten-year periods, would have provided a much clearer picture of the trends in literary activity. Clearly, we have an incomplete picture at this time of the evolving character of reading as the new form of literacy—digital literary—begins to grow in popularity and we begin to understand its effects on literary in general. See for example the analysis by Christine Rosen, People of the Screen at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/people-of-the-screen.


Theory of Clouds

Although it had been favorably reviewed, The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy became a disappointment. I did enjoy the beginning where the hero’s, (Howard), theory of clouds is described and then the subsequent discovery of his work by a weathy Japanese scholar (Kumo), as well as the charming relationship between Kumo and his assistant, Virginie.

But soon after the tale of Howard's Abercrombie Protocol was introduced, my interest began to flag and then as the nature of the Protocol was revealed, I thought the book became rather coarse, indeed, more and more so as this altogether too lengthy portion of the novel dragged on forever.

Perhaps the first part of Audeguy’s novel might have made a fine short story. That’s about it. Nevertheless, I did make note of some noteworthy passages and will pass along a few.

…thinking is hard work and can be done only under the right conditions. You need quiet, free time, a regular schedule and discipline.

Like the vast majority of people, Virginie never found her calling in life.

Our works alone mark the deserted landscapes of our lives.

He was like an evaporating pool of water with no source refreshing it, and he knew that as time passed he would gradually and relentlessly continue to diminish.

It would be so much simpler, just as things could always be so much simpler than they were, except that there are so few people able to achieve such simplicity.

He was furious that he had to die in order not to live all curled up like a larva. He wasn’t killing himself for a particular reason, or to demonstrate anything, but simply because he had no other choice. The only living option—being a decrepit and tedious old man—was of no interest to him.


On Place

It is cold once again, very cold, in fact. When it is like this, I try to recall those blazing warm Sundays in a remote Tuscan hilltown. No one is on the street. All of the stores are closed. The shutters of the surrounding apartment buildings are shut tight.

You park the car in the single open square, get out, and are enveloped by the heat. It is startling. It is wonderful. You look for a place to get a drink. The local bar, where you can get an expresso, a Panini, a cold drink, etc. is the only place that is open.

The TV is on and a few old men are staring mutely at it. On the screen is a soccer game somewhere in Italy and the crowd is roaring. Otherwise, it is utterly silent in the café and on the street. And it is hot. It is perfect.

I begin my inward journey by writing about place. Some do so by writing about love, war, suffering, cruelty, power, God or country. I write about place, or the memory of place. Andre Aciman

All we knew was that we helplessly loved the place [Florence], and did not pause to ask why. C. S. Lewis

Nowhere else is nature so subtle, elegant, and fine. The God who made the hills of Florence was an artist. How could it be possible that this violent hill of San Minato, so purely and firmly designed, be by the same author of the Mount Blanc? By comparison all else was gross. Anatole France

Henry James call it [Florence] the “rounded pearl of cities…Its sweetness, its “delicate charm” restored him—as it restored, at last, even poor suffering Montaigne “to perfect equanimity. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Eventually he realized he would never feel at home anywhere. He wasn’t quite sure why, except that he was a Jew and a philosopher which taken together doomed him to chronic dissatisfaction. Zadie Smith

That our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home. ….impossible journey home is in fact your home. David Foster Wallace


Commonplace Books

At the bookstore a few months ago I chanced upon an issue of Lapham's Quarterly. The periodical consists of a series of selections, largely but not exclusively historical on a single topic that have been drawn from previously written books, articles, essays, photos, etc. Nature was the theme of the issue I saw that night; other issues have dealt with Learning, War and Money. The latest issue, Volume II, Number 1, is devoted to Eros.

In a way, Lapham’s Quarterly constitutes a commonplace book. In most cases the selections are much longer than those commonly found in such a collection. I assume Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harpers, has selected them based on his extensive reading history and no doubt a fair amount of current research.

Rosemary Friedman has recently published (2006) a very interesting commonplace book titled A Writer's Commonplace Book. In it she has organized a set of passages drawn from over 3,000 entries from her reading. She notes that originally she referred to her collection as Things. The volume is divided into the following topical chapters

Writers & Writing
Literary Endeavour
Discovery & Travel
Creativity and the Arts
The Human Condition
Love, Marriage & Family
Life & Death,
Random Thoughts

The author of each entry is cited, but not its source. None of the passages are annotated. But in all other respects it also appears to be a genuine commonplace book and a very interesting one, as well. It was published in the UK which is the case for almost all commonplace books that are in print.



In Seven Types of Ambiguity Elliot Perlman wrote: “Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere.”

Readers are drawn to literature for many reasons but among the foremost are the truths they find there. To be sure, a reader never knows when they will be found or what writers and in what books they write, they will they chance upon them. Their discovery is unpredictable, unexpected, surprising. It is also one of the most powerful effects of reading literature.

Literary truths are not organized in a body of knowledge like they often are in science. They are hard to pin down, to remember, and apply when you might want to. To be sure, some are more salient than others. Yet readers differ widely in what they regard as the truths in a particular work of literature. Additionally, it is often claimed that literary truths are difficult to find elsewhere. This usually means they are not readily or in principle discoverable by scientific inquiry.

In the March 24, 2008 issue of The New Yorker Jill Lepore considers this issue, in terms of the truths revealed by historical novels and non-fiction histories in general. Her account dealt with one of the major reasons I continue to be so interested in fiction. For it is in works of fiction that I seem to find far more truths about myself and others than I find in the human sciences I know best.

The central ideas in Lepore’s essay can be gleaned from the following passages I marked:

…the best novels boast a kind of truth that even the best history books can never claim.

But is “historical truth” truer than fictional truth? The difference between history and poetry, Aristotle argued is that “the one tells what has happened, the other the kind of things that can happen.

...many historians worried that the seriousness of history, its very integrity as a discipline, was in danger of being destroyed by literary theorists who insisted on the constructedness, the fictionality, of all historical writing—who suggested that the past is nothing more than a story we tell about it. The field seemed to be tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss: If history is fiction, if history is not true, what’s the use?

The novelist is the better historian—and especially better than the empirical historian—because he admits that he is partial, prejudiced, and ignorant, and because he has not forsaken passion. The writer of romance is to be considered as the writer of real history…

Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people. The eighteenth century’s fictive history…is the history of private life; the history of what passes in a man’s own mind…


Commonplace Books

I keep coming across new material on commonplace books. Today I Googled Commonplace Books and Libraries. One of the most interesting pages was one at the British Library, http://www.ampltd.co.uk/collections_az/RenCpbks-BL/editorial-introduction.aspx

It begins with a delightful quotation:

"To those, who have been accustomed to the use of a Commonplace Book, the advantage of a convenient Repository of the kind is well known; and to those, who have not, its utility must be sufficiently obvious. The man who reads, and neglects to note down the essence of what he has read; the man who sees, and omits to record what he has seen; the man who thinks, and fails to treasure up his thoughts in some place…will often have occasion to regret an omission, which such a book, as is now offered to him, is well calculated to remedy."

A New Commonplace Book…Properly Ruled Throughout with a Complete Skeleton Index, and Ample Directions for its Use; Equally Adapted to the Man of Letters and the Man of Observation, the Traveller & the Student, and Forming a Useful and Agreeable Companion, on the Road and in the Closet (London, 1799), p.1.

I presume the previous paragraph is the source of the quotation, although it's author remains a mystery as far as I can tell.

I've never read another person's commonplace book, although I've skimmed a few of those that have been printed and the first page or so of an unpublished commonplace book of another reader. But I've yet to read one from page to page as one would read a book.

A friend wrote to me: "To read someone else's commonplace book is to stand at a keyhole and peer into who they are."

What a difficult task that would be. Like another person's letters or journals, however, it is one approach to beginning to understand an individual, at least, insofar as they are not simulating in these forms of personal expression.

Perhaps a person's commonplace book might even be more truthful, since it is unlikely the keeper believes someone else will ever view it. I also think it would be instructive for each keeper to analyze their own commonplace book with an eye to knowing themselves a little better.



On The New Yorker Magazine Blog, The Book Bench, they have a page called Bookspotting, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/bookspotting/. It is not unlike the Metropolitan Diary that appears each Monday in my edition of The New York Times. However, Bookspotting is devoted to observations of people reading in various public settings. Most are quite amusing.

Here is a recent one from the Book Bench:

The Classic
Late Thursday night, on the local train, heading down to Tribeca. We’re weary passengers tonight: the train is half empty, people slumped, clutching their bags, the lights blurring the orange seats. A young woman is holding a Penguin Classic—“Jane Eyre,” to be precise—lips pursed and brow furrowed in perfect concentration. A lovely shade of natural blond frames her face, and she’s still got freckles from the summer, the same size as the umlaut in BrontĂ« on the book’s spine. She’s in a white long-sleeve polo and bluejeans, her legs criss-crossed around a Gap bag. All she needs is a golden retriever, a lacrosse stick, and a Volvo station wagon to complete the picture; all she has is Mr. Rochester and his Thornfield Manor.

I have been making occasional fragmentary observations on the urban scene for years. They are not centered on book reading per se, but here is one about readers that I observed during a recent visit to a restaurant.

Three Readers
Two Japanese American couples entered the dining room with their children. The two sets of parents sat down at one end of the table, the four children at the other. I assumed each couple had two children, all of whom were young girls. The menus arrived, they were inspected, the parents ordered, and chatted with each other once in a while.

Three of the four young girls immediately took out their books and began to read. Not a word was exchanged between them. They read continuously, peering intently at the pages, bent over their books with considerable concentration, completely oblivious to anything else going on around them. The youngest of the four girls had taken out her iPod and listened to something while the others were reading. Thinking the best, I imagined that she was listening to an audio book. The readers continued with their tales until their meal arrived.

They picked up their books once again as soon as they had rapidly finished eating. Meanwhile, at other nearby tables, the young children of American couples nibbled a little of this and that, sans book, sans iPod or game-player, not doing much of anything really, awaiting the arrival of their burger and fries.

There are still a great many readers of literature in this country. Elsewhere I have criticized research reporting the sharp decline of reading in recent years. Readers may read a greater range of materials than is measured in these studies and fluctuations in the frequency of reading and book buying are to be expected. Of course, we cannot infer much from examples of bookspotting. Nevertheless I would welcome any bookspotting observations that you might wish to report. They may be more revealing than you suspect.


What Now?

What Now? is the title of the commencement address (and newly published book) that Ann Patchett delivered recently at Sarah Lawrence. It is charming, wise, and funny, just like everything else Patchett has written.

Patchett herself is charming, wise, and funny. Some writers write they way they are, others write the way they would like to be, and then there's the rest of us who are not quite sure who we are or how to write.

I recently heard Patchett speak at Powell’s in Portland on a book tour she was doing for the paperback edition of her recent novel, Run. She ambled in with a coffee mug in hand, wearing casual slacks and sneakers, completely oblivious to the huge crowd that had gathered to hear her but with that knowing grin that lights up her face and everyone else around her.

I believe What Now? (I sometimes refer to as Now What?) can be enjoyed and appreciated by a person at any stage in their life. The following passages in this slim volume should make that clear.

Writing is good for many things, but curing loneliness isn't one of them.

…people need to talk, and often a willingness to sit and listen is the greatest kindness one person can offer to another.

…the activity I'm most likely to be engaged in is staring.

Nothing at all is very much out of fashion these days, as are stillness, silence, and studied consideration.

Catholic school and college and graduate school had prepared me both for how to be part of a group and how to be the group's leader, but none of them had taught me the most important thing: how to be alone.

What now is always going to be a work in progress. What now was never what you think it's going to be and that's what every writer has to learn.

I learned the most from sticking with my dream even when all signs told me it was time to let go.

The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way.

…at every point in our development we are still striving to grow.

Make up some plans and change them. Identify your heart's truest desire and don't change that for anything.

…the kind of fire that comes from the perfect balance of intelligence and compassion.


Marilynne Robinson

I haven’t read any of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and I am not sure I ever will. As I understand her work, there is a religious overtone to her tales and that rarely finds a receptive audience with me. But I did enjoy reading her recent interview in the Paris Review, No. 198.

I also learned from her views on writing and the writing life she lives. Perhaps you can glimpse why from the following passages I collected. When I review them, as I did now, I'm no longer quite so sure I won't be reading her novels after all. Much of what she says rings true to me. Perhaps that might also be the case with her works of fiction.

I have this sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself.

Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you’re trying to work on something and it’s not going anywhere, you can go to school and there’s a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something.

The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking.

Q: Does writing come easily to you?
A: The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself and am a little bit grouchy when I have to deal with the reasonable expectations of the world.

I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence that I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.

Frankly you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, do them.


Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman is among the most aware writers I know. And by “aware” I mean in touch with layers and layers of his internal life--emotions, fictions, and feelings. He describes this world with extraordinary sensitivity and insight. It is his world and impossible to know if anything comparable belongs to anyone else.

But in reading his work, I find myself realizing how often I have felt the same and how rarely have I been aware of it. He is in touch with himself to a remarkable degree and in his essays he lays a path for his readers to discover the deeper layers of their own world.

Aciman grew up in a Jewish family that lived Egypt and eventually moved to Italy, then France, and finally the United States. He has written about his early days in Egypt in Out of Egypt and has also published a good many book reviews, memoirs, and essays, some of which are collected in False Papers.

In Intimacy, published in the Summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar he writes about visiting with his wife and three sons the neighborhood of his youth in Rome. The visit unleashes a cascade of reflections and feelings that took him by surprise.

The neighborhood as he saw it then, and as his family surely saw it too, was not the neighborhood he remembered. More importantly it was never his neighborhood in the first place. For the neighborhood that he lived in during those three years of his youth was entirely a world of his own creation. He writes:

“In that room on the Via Clelia, I managed to create a world that corresponded to nothing outside. My books, my city, myself. All I had to do then was let the novels I was reading lend their aura to this street and drop an illusory film over its buildings…”

And later:

“It dawned on me much later that evening that our truest, most private moments, like our truest, most private memories are made of just such unreal, flimsy stuff. Fictions. Via Clelia was my street of lies.”

Perhaps you have also experienced a desire to return to the neighborhood of your youth. Maybe it was also an ambivalent one as it was for Aciman. After leaving the town where I was born, I have returned to it on several occasions but never once visited the neighborhood where I lived, nor have I ever wanted to. But after reading Aciman’s account, I am giving second thought to that decision, although I dread the inevitable disruption of all that I recall.

You will get a glimpse of Aciman’s prose and an appreciation of the moods he brings to it from a few of the passages I noted in Intimacy:

…to settle into the experience [visiting the Roman neighborhood of his youth], gather my impressions, and unlock memory’s sluice gates, one by one.

Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?

Could parts of us just die to the past so that returning brings nothing back?

The romance of time had fallen flat. There was no past to dig up here…I might as well never have lived here at all.

But then, coming back from the West, perhaps it was I who was the shadow, not this street, not my books, not who I once was.

So why shouldn’t Via Clelia feel dead now? It had never been alive.

The walk from one bookstore to the other without paying attention to the city itself became my way of being in Rome…

I’d grown to love this Rome, a Rome that seemed more in me than it was out in Rome itself, because, in this very Rome I’d grown to love, there was perhaps more of me in it than there was of Rome…

It would take decades to realize that this strange, shadow Rome of my own invention was everyone else’s as well.

We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us.

Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me…

What my favorite authors were asking of me was that I read them intimately—not an invitation to read my own pulse on someone else’s work, but to read an author’s pulse as thought it were my own…

I told my wife and sons I was happy they had come with me. I told them it was good to come back, good to be heading back soon, good they didn’t let me come back alone. But I spoke these words without conviction, and would have thought I hadn’t meant them had I not grown used to the notion that speaking without conviction is how I hope to be honest. What roundabouts, though, for what others feel so easily. Roundabout love, roundabout intimacy, roundabout truth. In this, at least, I had remained the same.


W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden also organized his commonplace book, A Certain World, under thematic headings arranged in alphabetical order. So, for example, the first two are Accidie and Acronyms, while the last two are Word and Writing—apparently he could not come up with anything worthy of citation for X, Y, and Z. Auden does not comment on every entry, preferring instead to keep his own reflections, particularly those that might be viewed as autobiographical, “to a minimum and let others more learned, intelligent, imaginative and witty than I, speak for me.”

Nevertheless, his intermittent annotations are far from impersonal. For example, before listing passages from Proust, Ruskin, Goethe and others in the section on Ageing, Auden writes:

"I was both the youngest child and the youngest grandchild in my family. Being a fairly bright boy, I was generally the youngest in my school class. The result of this was that, until quite recently, I have always assumed that, in any gathering, I was the youngest person present….It is only in the last two or three years that I have begun to notice, to my surprise, that most of the people I see on the streets are younger than I. For the first time, too, though still in good health, I am almost able to believe that I shall die."

What could be more autobiographical than that? And a few pages later, before quoting a poem, Park Concert, under the heading Bands, he recalls:

"When I was young, brass-band concerts were a regular attraction in the public parks of cities. Am I mistaken in thinking that they have become rarities? All I know is that this poem fills me with nostalgia."

And under his last heading, Writing, after citing several passages concerning this topic, he comments: “Most of what I know about the writing of poetry, or, at least, the kind I am interested in writing, I discovered long before I took an interest in poetry itself.” He continues with a two-page recollection of various experiences that influenced his work as a poet.

In a review of A Certain World, Benjamin DeMott considers one of the questions that led me to look closely at my own commonplace book, namely what it might reveal about the underlying patterns of a person’s life. DeMott suggests one can learn a great deal about the kind of person Auden is from the entries in his commonplace book. He writes that aside from what we already know about him,

"You make out too that he’s not young, that he’s often melancholy and self accusatory, that he finds life short. And you can assume only a little speculatively, that he lends excitement to the lives of his friends not alone through his writing…..[and is] a rueful, deep, humorous, loving man."

It would not be a stretch to conclude that Auden’s comments in his commonplace book are a good deal more personal than he is willing to admit. So too, I imagine are the entries in most commonplace books.

Commonplace Books

It isn't often that I read about commonplace books on the literary or scientific blogs that I read. But a couple of months ago I did see the term used in a blog known as The Front Cortex (http://scienceblogs.com/cortex) written by Jonah Lehrer, the author of Proust was a Neuroscientist.

In his September 9th blog on Mania, Lehrer writes about an Oliver Sacks essay on manic depressive disorder that was published in the New York Review of Books. After quoting a couple of paragraphs in Sack's essay, Lehrer says:

"I would love Sacks to create a commonplace book featuring all those quotes that he so effortlessly places throughout his prose. (Auden wrote a great one.)"

What a fine idea I thought, although I can't imagine publishers would be interested in publishing a person's commonplace book on a single or set of topics, unless of course they were well known like Sacks and Auden.

I could readily put together a book on the major themes of my Commonplace Book. But in today’s “market” even highly respected authors would have difficulty publishing such a volume.


Muriel Barbery

There are three pages of reviewer’s comments (all of them laudatory, of course) before the first page of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. One of them quotes a psychotherapist who is prescribing the novel to her patients:

“Hedgehog or Prozac? At first, the question may seem absurd. But it becomes less so when one learns that a Parisian psychotherapist is prescribing Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog to her patients. ‘Yes, I am prescribing it, and I do mean prescribing. This book can do a lot of good…[it’s] a real toolbox that one can look into to resolve one’s problems.’ …And, indeed, all women, at least once, even Carla Bruni, have lived through the kind of psychological self-denigration that Renee inflicts on herself in the opening scene of the book. The ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.”—L’Express

I was both startled and pleased to read this as I have recently become interested in the application of literature in therapeutic settings. Not much is known about this and there has been very little written on the topic. Toward the end of Barbery’s novel I began to understand the reasons the therapist is using the novel in her practice. One wonders what effects it might be having.

Barbery’s work is said to be a “novel of ideas.” It took me a while to notice that, but I did eventually begin to record several ideas, some very excellent ones indeed. The tale concerns a concierge of an apartment house in the St. Germain neighborhood in Paris Renee, the concierge, is a closet intellectual who is eventually found out by a sweet and brilliant adolescent and a newly arrived Japanese millionaire, both of whom befriend her and come to appreciate her quiet intellect. Here are a few of the passages I recorded; perhaps they indicate why the therapist recommended the book to her clients.

…mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire.

…my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.

People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl.

I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.

…my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor.

With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else than can nurture human life.

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them.

In Japanese wabi means “an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity.”

…intelligence, in itself, is neither valuable nor interesting. Very intelligent people have devoted their lives to the question of the sex of angels, for example.

What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?

I should scarcely have believed that between two people there could exist such a congruity of tastes and thought patterns.

…maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is not longer the same.

We can be anything we want to be.


David Cecil

In 1975 David Cecil published Library Looking Glass that is an anthology of literary passages with extensive annotations that is in many respects a commonplace book at its very best. The passages are drawn from well known literary works, they are provocative, and most are followed with critical comments that are both autobiographical and a pleasure to read. Like Auden’s A Certain World and Charles Curtis’ A Commonplace Book, Cecil's volume has arranged his topics alphabetically beginning with Art and ending with Wordsworth, leaving blank X, Y, and Z.

Some of the letters have more than one topic, as in "C" with entries on Change of Key, Child in the House, Colour Sense, Comedy, Class System, Classics, Commitment, Complaints, Comparative, Conservation, Content, Contrasts, and Criticism. In addition, more often than not, several passages have been listed for each topic. For example, Cecil has listed nine separate poetry passages for Autumn, while English Landscape has eleven

Cecil was an English aristocrat, literary scholar, and biographer who taught at Oxford for many years. In an amusing introduction to the volume Cecil takes issue with those who recoil from the practice of writing in printed books. He says it is really a compliment to its author saying "It treats him as a living man, with whom one wants, as it were, to converse." In an echo of my own practice, as well as those of most contemporary readers who keep a commonplace book, Cecil writes:

…when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration…The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.

In a Library Looking Glass, Cecil has assembled a selection of these passages and has usually added a comment suggesting why they have evoked his interest. Cecil admits that his reasons were largely personal and for this reason his anthology can be thought of as a "sort of self-portrait; myself, as mirrored in the looking-glass of my reading."

While his volume may be autobiographical, because there is no temporal order to the alphabetical ordering of the topics, it is difficult to read through from beginning to end, as one would read a personal history. Instead, I prefer to dip into it from to time and skip around from topic to topic in no particular order. Whenever I do this, I find the passages Cecil has selected and his thoughtful commentaries a continuing source of pleasure.

Here is an example of one such annotated passage on the topics of The Classics:

The study of the Classics…teaches us to believe that there is something rally great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear which bows only to present power and upstart authority…we feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages
It is hard to find in minds otherwise formed, either a real love of excellence, or a belief that any excellence exists superior to their own.
William Hazlitt, The Round Table

Cecil comments:

As a teacher of English literature I was sometimes asked what was the use of my subject. Hazlitt answered the question here better than I ever did.
There is a provinciality in time as well as in space. To feel ill-at-ease and out of place except in one’s own period is to be a provincial in time. But he who has learned to look at life through the eyes in turn of Chaucer, of Donne, of Pope and of Thomas Hardy is freed from this limitation. He has become a cosmopolitan of the ages, and can regard his own period with the detachment which is a necessary foundation of wisdom.


Haruki Murakami

I have read several short stories that Haruki Murakami has written for The New Yorker and a couple of his books—those that I could make sense of anyway for most of novels are highly allegorical. His latest book that was excerpted in a recent New Yorker is called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, (with permission of Raymond

I have been a runner for much of my adult life and while I don’t run as long or as intensely as Murakami does, many of his musings about running struck a responsive chord. They also illustrated how much one learns from the experience of running--responding to pain, competitive pressures, and in Murakami’s case, writing itself. In the largest sense running is a laboratory for learning.

I made note of a number of passages in his volume, especially those that describe an experience I have had while running or in between runs. Indeed, a shared experience or idea is often characterizes the passages I make note of in the books I read. Here are a few from the Murakami volume:

I can't grasp much of anything without putting my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words. Otherwise, I'd never know what running means to me.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Sometimes when I think of Life, I feel like a piece of driftwood washed up on the shore.

…beating somebody else just doesn't do it for me. I'm much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself, so in this sense long-distance running is the perfect fit for a mindset like mine.

I'm the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I'm the type of person who doesn't find it painful to be alone.

Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.

The happiest thing about becoming a professional writer was that I could go to bed early and get up early.

…what's the next most important quality is for a novelist, that's easy too: focus.

As I run in the morning along the river I often see the same people at the same time.

I can try all I want, but I doubt I'll ever be able to run the way I used to. I'm ready to accept that. It's not one of your happier realities, but that's what happens when you get older.

…this memory of so long ago suddenly comes back to me.


On Beauty

Why do we call something beautiful? Why do we say Florence is a beautiful city? Or why is a person said to be beautiful? What is it that we mean when we say something is beautiful?

In an October 2, 2006 New Yorker article on String Theory Jim Holt writes:

“The gold standard for beauty in physics is Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What makes it beautiful? First there is its simplicity…Then there is its surprise: who could have imagined that this whole theory would flow from the natural assumption that all frames of reference are equal...? Finally, there is its aura of inevitability. Nothing about it can be modified without destroying its local structure. The physicist Steven Weinberg has compared it to Raphael’s Holy Family, in which every figure on the canvas is perfectly placed and there is nothing you would have wanted the artist to do differently.”

I like that: Simplicity. Surprise. Inevitability, although I like that less than the first two.

Later Holt writes:

“In the post-modern era, we are told, aesthetics must take over where experiment leaves off. Since string theory does not deign to be tested directly, its beauty must be the warrant of its truth."

And later:

“The idea that beauty is truth, truth beauty may be a beautiful one, but is there any reason to think it is true? Truth, after all, is a relationship between a theory and the world, whereas beauty is a relationship between a theory and the mind. Perhaps, some have conjectured, a kind of cultural Darwinism has drilled it into us to take aesthetic pleasure in theories that are more likely to be true.”

But that can’t explain the enormous variability of what individuals regard as beautiful. One person’s beauty is another person’s ugly.

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. Having limited philosophy’s objects to certainties…”

And so I continue to ponder the meaning of beauty. How about you? Have you given much thought to the concept? What does it mean to you?

I do know this: that I am grateful for the beauty that surrounds me. I was reminded of how grateful I am by Theodore Dalrymple’s sentiment

“…gratitude for the beauty of the things that sustain us.”


Harold Bloom

I am an admirer of Harold Bloom. Oh, that I had his erudition. In a recent New York Review of Books essay, (The Glories of Yiddish New York Review 11/6/08), he reviews a book by Max Weinreich titled History of the Yiddish Language. While I do not speak Yiddish (or Hebrew or any other foreign language very well), I was fascinated by Bloom’s review.

There were two elements of his analysis of Yiddish that struck a responsive chord. The first is that “irony is endemic” to the language and second that questioning is one of its central features. Endless irony and questioning, both ways of speaking and writing I like to employ. Heavens knows why.

Earlier I wrote about the continuous questioning in the language of Night Train to Lisbon. It was the reason I liked the book so much, a style of speaking and writing that seems rare today, like Yiddish. As far as I can tell, neither Prado or Gregorious was Jewish and I doubt Mercier, the author of Night Train to Lisbon, is either. Who knows?

I greatly enjoyed reading Bloom’s review, The Glories of Yiddish and collected several passages. There follows a selection:

But then, irony is endemic in the very nature of Yiddish, a fusion always conscious of its otherness…

“Yiddish speakers speak not so much with individual referring words as with such clusters of relations, ready-made idioms, quotations and situational responses. Since each word may belong to several heterogeneous or contradictory knots, ironies are always at hand.” Uriel Weinreich

It is not the denotations that the language covers but the emotive and semantic directions of the hearer’s empathy. In this mode of discourse, the overt clash, ironic or clever, between words of different stock languages in one sentence is a major source of meaning, impact, and delight.

The fate of an American Jewish culture that possesses no distinctive spiritual and aesthetic components is difficult either to describe or to prophesy.

If assimilation is defined as a minority’s adoption of the customs, values, and habits of the majority, the American Jews are leagues beyond mere absorption into the cultural diffuseness of their country. I can no longer know (or care) which of my many students are more-or-less Jewish, and many of them do not know either. Should this be deplored? Increasingly I am uncertain.

…my classes are filled by many Asians and Asian-Americans who have replaced Jews as the most alert and able of students.

…the Talmud always is close by, helping to make Yiddish perhaps uniquely the language of questions.

The uncanny familiarity of Yiddish for Jewish…has something to do with its insinuating, questioning quality. Yiddish is the Hamlet of languages: the Prince of Denmark’s play abounds with questionable enigmas and a plethora of instances of the word “questions.”

Though Yiddish and Talmud share the style of generally answering questions with fresh questions, I cannot imagine the Talmud written in Yiddish.

Neither American nor Israeli Jews are now a text-centered people, any more than American Gentiles are. Deep reading wanes, and bilingualism is a vanishing phenomenon.

The vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday soon will be no more.