The Dying Animal

Over the weekend I saw the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal. Once again it was a jarring experience to see a novel translated into a motion picture. The film, Elegy, starred Ben Kingsley as the professor of literature David Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as Consuela Castillo, the young student he fancies. Cruz fit the image that I had from Roth’s characterization, although her overwhelming beauty was far more than I had imagined. However, Kingsley was nothing like the Kepesh in the novel or the Kepesh in any the other Roth novels where he appears.

What has happened to casting directors these days? I didn’t see the film when it was in the theaters because I simply didn’t want to see Kepesh portrayed by Kingsley, not that I have any great admiration for Kepesh, but only that never once did I think of him with a shaved head, pointy goatee, and unsmiling, somber demeanor. Eventually I succumbed to the DVD version. Watching it was a less than joyful experience.

The novel draws its title from lines in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

In the novel David Kepesh is white-haired, well over 60, a prominent TV cultural critic and professor at a New York college. As is his practice, he holds a party for his students at the end of the academic year, picks a woman from the former-student guests to carry on with for a while, until the next semester when he repeats the routine all over again. In The Dying Animal, Kepesh’s end-of-the-semester woman is Consuela Castillo, an intelligent “masterpiece of volupte" with whom he eventually falls in love, unlike all his previous affairs. Her youth and beauty totally undo him, whereupon he falls into a possessiveness and intense jealousy that eventually leads to the end of their affair.

Several years later Conseula comes to see Kepsch to tell him she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Kepsch is truly bereft and mourns:

“In every calm and reasonable person, there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.”

Consuela is dying. Kepsch is dying. At the time I read the novel, I felt that’s what Roth was really writing about. It is also the central theme in several of his recent novels, most recently Exit Ghost and earlier Everyman. In Exist Ghost he says that growing old is a massacre. It’s not quite that severe in The Dying Animal, but you sense it is just around the corner.

Far from feeling youthful, you feel the poignancy of her limitless future as opposed to your own limited one, you feel even more than you ordinarily do the poignancy of every last grace that’s been lost…You note the difference every second of the game.

What is it that puts me outside? It is age. The wound of age.

…time is not how much future she has left, and she doesn’t believe there is any. Now she measures time counting forward, counting time by the closeness of death.

In truth, the film also spends a good deal of time dealing with questions of age. As the film reviewer James Berardinelli notes in his review of Elegy:

"Aging is a significant element of this movie, especially as it relates to an intimacy between someone who is closer to death than birth and someone who, ideally, is the opposite."

I concur with Berardinelli who, in contrast to most reviewers of the film or the novel, reflects Roth’s preoccupation with the steadily increasing limitations of growing old. Roth does this with genuine poignancy and so does the film director Isabel Coixet regardless of who she has cast as Professor Kepesh. And I think she has also chosen a better title for the story. “Elegy” is typically a lament for the dead. Here it is a lament for the death of youth, the looming death of a beautiful young women and an aging man.


Journey Through the Plot

While only a few readers place marks in the margin in the books they read, almost all mark their place in a book in some fashion when they put the book down—a slip of paper, a bus ticket, or a bookmark from their favorite bookstore. I had forgotten about the special nature of this practice until a friend recently sent me a beautiful book (Marco Ferreri, 1995. Bookmarks) on the subject of bookmarks. What an unusual subject for a book, I thought. The small volume is much like a catalogue that you would find at a museum.

I’ve asked a few of my reader friends if they have any special preference about the bookmarks they use. One reported she uses any old item that happens to be hanging around, like an old post card, Polaroid, or food stamp pamphlet. Another wrote that she never leaves a bookstore without checking to see if they have a bookmark to add to her rather enormous collection.

On the other hand, another reader friend of mine reports that she has a special fondness for bookmarks that she made herself. She recounted the construction of several when she was at the beach with her daughter and grandchildren. The bookmarks they made that day included glued shells, sand, and seagull feathers. It was a good memory for her.

A variety of bookmarks have made an appearance in works of literature. Louse in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter was said to be an avid reader who used “hairpins, inside the library books where she had marked her place.” Christine the professor In Tessa Hadley’s short story, Mother’s Son, used a widely employed bookmarking technique: “…books by Rhys and Woolf and Bowen were piled all around her, some of them open face down on the table, some of them bristling with torn bits of papers as bookmarks.”

More recently, and to my relief, the art of bookmarking has been restored to its aesthetic integrity by Michael Ondaatje in Divisadero: “Once Lucien picked up a book that the thief had been reading and saw a sprig of absinthe leaves used as a bookmark. That felt like the only certain thing about the man, and from then on, every few days, the writer carefully noted the progress of the absinthe, making its own journey through the plot.”

The Internet has given birth to new meaning for the word “bookmark.” Now there are digital bookmarks to accompany all those “real world” versions that have given readers such pleasure over the centuries. If you ask someone to describe a bookmark, they are likely to tell you it is one of their favorite Web pages that can be reached by clicking on its link in the browser they are using. Of course, there is nothing aesthetically appealing about these kinds of bookmarks, nor does their appearance vary in any particular respect. They are surely not going to be collected or treasured like the bookmarks of yesteryear, and no one is going to get very choosy about how they look or feel either.

It bothers me a bit to dilute the meaning of an object that is as richly valued as a bookmark that we use in reading a book, so I think it might be a really good idea to find another way to refer to the Web pages that we want to remember. How about webmark, virtualmark or digimark? Any of those terms would do. Don’t they denote more accurately what a Web site is than does the word “bookmark?”

There is even a site on the Web now devoted exclusively to the topic of bookmarks. On this site you will find links to a sizeable number of bookmark collections and exhibitions, documents on the history of bookmarks, and information about exchanging books with other collectors.

Each of the treasured bookmarks in my bookmark collection conjures a memory of the bookstore, the town where it is located, its size, the quality of its collection, the light in the store, and the feeling that comes to me when I am there. In this sense, a bookmark is indistinguishable from any memento, say a photograph or a trinket from a place I have been. Both seek to preserve an experience that was in some way memorable and don’t want to forget. In this way, a bookmark does its part, albeit a small one, to sustain the culture of reading and all that follows from that experience.


Weekend Links

Some Remarkable Bookstores
Photos of some of the most beautiful bookstores in the world

How We Decide
Review of a new book about the neurophysiology of decision-making

Twitter Book Club
An online book group that begins with Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper & the Professor

Predictably Irrational (Video)
An excellent talk about how we are so readily led to make foolish decisions.

Subway Bookspotting
Peeking to see what another person is reading

More Nudges (Video)
The subtle and not so subtle ways we are influenced

What Recession?
Learning to step back from the troubling times


By a Running Brook

The heroine of Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind describes a daydream that I also have from time to time.

“All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books.”

What booklover has not had such a dream? There are some who try to make that dream come alive. My mother was such a person. She cherished books, had always been a reader, and relatively late in her life decided to express her love of books by starting a bookstore.

That was in 1973, in the days when people still read books and when there was still a place in any community for a small, independent bookstore. The store was located in a growing, largely student, neighborhood adjacent to Santa Barbara branch of the University of California. She called the store The Running Brook:

Find tongues in trees,
Books in the running brook,
Sermons in stones and
Good in everything

As You Like It

She created a warm and inviting store that was much too lavish for the community of nearby students. The bookshelves were made of handsome wood finishing, the walls were adorned with attractive paintings, and comfortable armchairs were placed throughout the store. She was really far more interested in poetry readings, book discussions, and chess matches than selling books.

In a newspaper article on the store it was reported that she graced the store with her two kittens that delighted in climbing over prospective buyers. And in discussing her plans for recycling books she is quoted as saying, “When the person is finished with the book and no longer has a use for it, he should bring it in so that others might also derive enjoyment from it.”

In time The Running Brook became too much for her to mange and was no doubt loosing a fair amount of money. She closed the bookstore two years after it opened. I am sure it was some relief, rather than regret. She had done it, done something she had dreamed about for years, and she had done it well and beautifully and with love.

I can easily imagine a life living in the company of books, a company devoted to the buying and selling of books, an inviting bookstore. I have a poster on the wall of the room where I keep my books from a company like this in Cannon Beach, Oregon. It was given to me by a very kind calligrapher and reads:

The proper study of mankind is books
Books we must have though we lack bread.
The true university of these days is a collection of books.
No furniture is so charming as books
Books are often wider than the readers.
Beware the man of one book.
A man who can read books and does not, has no advantage over a man who cannot read.
All the glory of the world would be lost in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.
Wear the old coat and buy the new book


Two Cultures

I was reminded by an essay in the Times Sunday Book Review that it was almost 50 years ago that the English physicist and writer C.P Snow delivered his famous Two Cultures lecture at Cambridge. Peter Dizikes, the essay’s author writes that Snow’s lament was that:

“…the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups, consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other."

There may be little disagreement about this once it is recognized that literary and scientific accounts have entirely different goals and methods. In my view the so-called two cultures actually have more in common than Snow would have us believe. At least they have both found a comfortable place in my own experience.

In a recent interview Daniel Gilbert, an experimental social psychologist, comments that “most of what science has to tell us about human behavior already has been divined by writers with great insight.”

In response to a later question Gilbert admits that there’s nothing about “human behavior or the experience of the mind that you cannot find in literature. But on the other hand you can also find the opposite in literature. Everything that can be said about the human condition has been said by some writer.”

Gilbert notes that after reading his most recent book, Stumbling on Happiness where he liberally quotes Shakespeare, a literature professor said, “Given that Shakespeare saw all this stuff, had these insights, why do we need science?” Gilbert replies “Well I could also find ten places where he said exactly the opposite. If you say everything, some of it winds up being right.”

Gilbert claims science “helps us confirm which writers were right and which were wrong, but it rarely tells us something that a writer of Shakespeare’s caliber didn’t come up with first.” But even science, at least the science of human behavior, is stuck with considerable empirical uncertainty. Facts and theories come and go with further research; what is held to be true today will in due course shown to be false or incomplete or require revision tomorrow. As Gilbert later admits, he always begins his freshman course, Introduction to Psychology, by telling the students “that half of what I teach them will turn out to be wrong; the problem is I don’t know which half.”

This is precisely what he said about Shakespeare. Indeed, in the psychological sciences the level of inconsistency and disagreement between accounts is scarcely distinguishable from literary accounts. A literary truth is always right, right for its fictional depiction, and right for a reader who finds it expresses something true for them. It may not be true for another reader, let alone many others. But a writer has no designs on formulating general truths as a scientist does.

In writing to me about this topic Audrey Borenstein quotes the following passage from her book Redeeming the Sin: Social Science and Literature:

“The social scientist, too, needs experience, observation, and imagination; and the best of social science, the works that will endure, are those in which all three are interwoven. Yet, while the risk for the social scientist is that he may miss seeing the detail—the trees, the risk of the writer is that he may miss seeing the forest. It would seem that the social scientist and the writer work from different directions toward the same achievement, the discovery of the universal. Ultimately, however, the distinction between artistic and scientific endeavor is arbitrary and spurious…The crystal and the molecule, the spinning earth, the leaf moving in the wind are rightful subjects for both poet and naturalist: artist and scientist are not two beings, but one.”


On Friendship

Sandor Marai’s Embers, first published in 1942 in Hungary, was widely praised when it was rediscovered a few years ago and given what I believe is an excellent English translation. It is a dark and somber novel, not at all light and fluffy like Eat, Pray, Love. The story involves a lavish dinner meeting that stretches s into the morning hours between a former Austrian general, Henrik, and his boyhood friend, Konrad, an impoverished relative of Chopin whose real talent is music:

Konrad’s music…didn’t offer forgetfulness; it aroused people to feelings of passion and guilt, and demanded that people be truer to themselves in heart and mind.

Early on you led to believe the novel is about the nature of friendship and the bond that develops between Henrik and Konrad:

The intimacy that bound them was closer that any physical bond.

It would be good to know whether such a thing as friendship actually exists….Sometimes I almost believe it is the most powerful bond in life and consequently the rarest. What is its basis? Sympathy? A hollow, empty word, too weak to express the idea that in the worst times two people will stand up for each other.,…The eros of friendship has no need of the body.

We are also led to believe there is also the friendship between the two men and Krisztina, Henrik’s beautiful and also musically inclined wife:

…her body seemed possess of a secret, as if her bones, her flesh, her blood concealed with them some essence, the secret of time or of life itself, a secret that could neither be told nor translated into any language, since is was beyond words.

…Krisztina whom I found the way a collector finds the prize of his life, the rarest, most perfect object in his collection, the masterpiece, the goal and the meaning of his existence.

But no, the novel is not about the nature of friendship, rather it is about the fundamental animosity between the two men, the end of their friendship and the way that occurred. This is revealed when they meet once again at the general’s castle after not having seen each other for 41 years. What happened to them during this interval? Why did Konrad abruptly leave Hungry for the tropics? And what is the purpose of their dinner rendezvous after all those years?

The protracted answer to these questions reads more like a judicial sentence than a cordial dinner conversation. We learn that their friendship was one in name only and that they were irrevocably separated by both class and belief. Although Konrad joined the military, he did so without conviction. Henrik says:

You set aside your uniform because you saw it as a disguise, that much is already clear. I, on the other hand, wore mine for as long as duty and the world demanded it.

We learn that one day on a hunt Henrik senses that Konrad is about to shoot him. And then Konrad suddenly resigns from the army and flees the country. When Henrik learns this, he rushes over to Konrad’s house to try to find out why only to discover that his “incandescent” wife, Krisztina, is there and that they had been lovers for years. They never speak to one another again throughout the remaining 8 years of her life as Henrik moves to a hunting lodge on his estate where he lives in solitude.

And so what we learn as Henrik’s long and repetitious lecture-sentence-peroration-tirade continues through the night is that his wife and friend had betrayed him. There is no dialogue, Konrad offers no defense or explanation; he hardly utters a word during the whole of Henrik’s catharsis. One grows weary reading it. Still, after all the hate and venom are let loose upon his guest, Henrik concludes: “You killed something side me, you ruined my life,” yet in the same breath, he proclaims “but we are still friends.”

I have written a less than enthusiastic review of Embers. I would not have read the book had a friend not sent it to me. But she said I might like it. Now after reading it, I’m not quite sure why. But we all read differently and no book speaks the same way to each reader. Perhaps you might enjoy it; one can never be sure of these things, let alone much of anything these days.

I close with passages from Embers on two themes that loom large in my current thinking—aging and change

On Aging
We age slowly. First, our pleasure in life and other people declines…we understand the significance of everything, everything repeats itself in a kind of troubling boredom. It’s the function of our…Then our bodies age, not all at once. First, it is the eyes, or the legs, or the heart. We age by installments. And then suddenly our spirits begin to age: the body may have grown old, but our souls still year and remember and search and celebrate and long for joy. And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity and then, finally, we are truly old.

…there’s nothing we want anymore, either good or bad. That is old age. There’s still some spark inside us, a memory, a goal, someone we would like to see again, something we would like to say or learn, and we know the time will come, but then suddenly it is no longer as important to learn the truth and answer to it as we had assumed in all the decades of waiting.

On Change
…neither reason nor experience can do much to change one’s stubborn nature.

…one cannot change another’s tastes or inclinations or rhythms, that essential otherness, no matter how close or how important the bond.

I am thinking that people find truth and collect experiences in vain, for they cannot change their fundamental natures.

…there’s no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies our self-regard, or our cupidity.


Online Book Club

I have been reading the New Yorker Book Club’s “discussion” of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. More accurately I’ve been trying to read the comments that are posted from time to time on the Club’s website. You don’t “listen” to the discussion at this book group as you would in a face-to-face gathering, nor is it possible to follow-up immediately with comment or question, that is responded to, in turn, by another member. Indeed, the experience of an online book club is quite different than it is in a real-time group.

Here is how it works. First you go to the Book Club’s website to read any one of the several Discussion Topics. You read it as best you can and then, should there be any comments you click on “comment” whereupon to are taken to a new page where you can read them. Most are brief, although some are as lengthy and detailed as the original statement itself.

There are two ways you can contribute, both of which require registration. The Book Club leader (a New Yorker staff writer) must first approve your remarks if you wish it to be listed as a Discussion Topic. Otherwise, to respond to any of the general Topic statements, you need only fill in the box on the comment page for that Topic.

The Club began meeting on February 19th and to date to date there have been 12 Discussion Topics and a variable number of comments to each one ranging from 0 to 11. I think the discussion of each book will last about a month plus or minus a few days. The next reading will be George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

I began reading the Club’s discussions to find out what it is like. And what I am finding is that it is not all that likeable. Rather, it is a somewhat cumbersome and awkward routine. The task of reading the list of Discussion Topics, then switching to the comment page of each one, and then back again to the next Discussion Topic is a slow and awkward process. So is the routine for making a comment.

What this sort of online book club (perhaps any online book club) lacks is the lively to and fro of an active conversation, the development of ideas and the clarification of meaning, all of which are present in a face-to-face meeting. And as I read the remarks I don’t see much in the way of dialogue either. Each person makes a statement, followed in turn by another that rarely, if ever, acknowledges a point made by anyone else. (Full Disclosure—yesterday a person did, in fact, respond to a comment I had made. Although my comment was posted over a week ago, at least it was made note of and I was relieved that the responder happened to agree with my view of the novel.)

I began reading the Book Club as an experiment. I haven’t found it a very congenial experience. More to my liking is a conventional book club, especially one composed of serious readers who actually read the book and are more interested in its ideas, rather than the tasty morsels and general socializing that are often found at these gatherings.

In fact, my Ideal Book Club would follow the model established in some academic seminars. It would begin with a brief paper, circulated in advance if possible, and followed by an open discussion of the paper and the book upon which it is based. In a sense, each book read would have a “leader” who would be responsible for the brief paper and guiding the discussion.

The Reading Groups at the Mercantile Library for Fiction in New York are something like I have in mind. Take a glance at the groups--one reading the Great Books, another Virginia Woolf, one reading a novel by Rainier Maria Rilke, another detective stories and yet one more considering Latin American novels. And if this wasn’t enough, there is also a Proust Society at the Mercantile Library with several groups discussing the works of Marcel Proust. Can you believe such a place like this exists? It puts one in a mood to flee this island paradise and fly away to New York on the next plane.


The Road to Italy

I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. I have heard so much about this book and when I learned there was a section on Italy, I decided to give it a try. Following a protracted and devastating divorce and then a volatile romance, Gilbert decides to spend a year trying to bring some balance to her life and overcome the depression that has settled upon her. She plans first to travel to Italy for pleasure, then India for meditation and finally Indonesia (Bali) to seek some balance between the two.

Ah, Italy. She says she was drawn to the idea of living for a while in a culture where pleasure and beauty are revered. She describes it perfectly--the beauty of the land, the cities, the people and the language.

She reports: In a world of disorder and disease and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted.

And oh, yes, the food. She eats the same way she lives, with gusto and unbounded restraint. Soon she gains 25 pounds and must look for new clothes. But she also loves just as much the language.

Italian—a language I find more beautiful than roses—

Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me.

…we all want to speak Italian because we love the way it makes us feel.

In all the years I have visited Italy I never felt the need to learn Italian. I liked the mystery of those unknown words and the lyrical music of the speech. I loved the sound of the Italian language. As I listened, I began to understand why Italians are so musical for it is the essence of their language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic.

I don’t think it would be difficult to learn Italian, as it was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducing an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

However, Gilbert is more dedicated than I ever was. She enrolls in an Italian language class, finds a fellow student to help learn the ins and outs of its subtleties over countless meals, and does her best to speak it as she explores the Italian peninsula from Venice to Sicily. She spends days walking the streets of Rome. However, she does not visit a single museum during the entire time (four months) she was in Italy.

Gilbert is charming, she is zesty, she is hilarious and occasionally she is wise.

In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding that they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.

What a large number of factors constitute a single human being! How very many layers we operate on, and how very many influences we receive from our minds, our bodies, our histories, our families, our cities, our souls and our lunches!

That’s the thing about a human life—there’s no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed.

Still for all that Italy means to her she is often lonely and depressed. She is desperate for love. Pure pleasure, she writes, is not my “cultural paradigm.” So after four months of mostly “pure pleasure,” she heads off to India. Will I travel with her? At this point, I remain uncertain.


Weekend Links

Can’t Put It Down

Conference on Free Market

Classic on Writing

The Concept of Sharing

The Present in the Past, the Past in the Present

Can We Make This Work Now?

The New Depression?


Endangered Species

A friend of mine is a devoted and serious reader. She has been so since childhood. I fear she is a member of an endangered species. She is also a reader of all things literary: the classics, the contemporary, the romantic, and fiction, non-fiction, periodicals and newspapers. You name it: she reads it.

She began reading long before the days of e-books, digital editions, or any of the new Readers such as the Google Reader or the Stanza App. So I was quite honestly astonished when she told me that she had purchased the Kindle1 and started to read Kindle editions of some of the work she would normally buy at the bookstore. I was even more amazed when she reported she loved reading with the thing.

However, I was not surprised to learn she had ordered the new Kindle2 long before it was ready to be shipped, nor that she loves the thing even more. To find out what has happened to her, I arranged to interview her briefly the other day:

R: Now that you have a Kindle, do read all of your books electronically or do you still purchase and read printed books?

L: I still purchase and read printed books

R: Do you enjoy reading books on the Kindle as much as you do in their print version?

L: Sometimes more, sometimes less. I don’t like reading 50 pound hard covers, for instance!

R: What are the biggest selling points of the Kindle for you?

L: Portability. Ability to download passages.

R: I know you used to keep a commonplace book where you copied by hand memorable passages that you read. Do you still do that with the Kindle? I am aware it can be done, but do you maintain your commonplace book practice with books that you read on the Kindle?

L: Yes, I’ve tried to download them and put them in a program that is searchable. I’m behind on it though.

R: Tell me what you read with your Kindle? For example, do you read the New York Times on the Kindle or the printed newspaper? What magazines do you read in the Kindle version? And is there a class of books that you are more likely to read on the Kindle than in the printed version?

L: I get newspapers and magazines though I find I’m just as likely not to read them as in print! But at least I don’t build up piles of newsprint anymore. I get Fortune, Forbes, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal. I’m more likely to read hard covers in Kindle versions and anything that I think I’m likely to mark up.

R: Can you describe the major differences between reading a book electronically on the Kindle from reading it as a printed book? Has the Kindle changed the quality of the reading experience for you?

L: Being able to easily refer back to marked passages is good. Being able to search for something if you lose it is good. Being able to read one-handed (gloves, eating, hanging onto subway pole) is good. But I don’t think it is a dramatic change. More convenience.

So that, in a nutshell, describes what the experience of reading literature in electronic form is like for her. If you can believe her, it isn’t that much different. She still reads as much, maybe more actually. She reads on the subway, no doubt on the street, and just about anywhere she happens to be.

From the beginning the feature of the Kindle that concerned me most is the business of saving those memorable passages that you want to record and collect in your commonplace book. You cannot mark passages as you can do in a printed book, but it seems you can highlight them on the Kindle, moved to a saved file, and then download them in a flash to a Word document on your computer.

In contrast, when I wish to add them to my commonplace book, I must retype each one. In a lengthy book with a great many memorable passages that does take a while. I’ve always justified the time it takes because it gives me a chance to review and think about them anew. But there are other ways to do that too.

Am I going to buy the Kindle 2? Yes, I am tempted. But first I’ll ask the President for some Bailout Funds. Given the likes of other such requests, this seems like a fairly worthy one, don’t you think?


Self Recognition

Why do we read? In describing why she liked reading the novels of the French writer Colette, Vivian Gornick, a writer I greatly respect, said: “It was the potential for self-recognition that made Collette’s novels so compelling” to her.

Of course, there are many other ways to answer that question. Each of us has our own reasons. What are mine? Why have I always been a reader, indeed, more so now than ever? As I think about the question I inevitably turn to literature for the answer.

In Night Train to Lisbon Gregorious asks: “Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?”

By his action, he answers affirmatively. And so he breaks away from his teaching position in Switzerland and heads off to Lisbon in order to learn as much as he can about the life of Amadeu Prado, the author of A Goldsmith of Words, the book he found through a remarkable set of circumstances in a Bern bookshop

As I think back upon all the literary reading I tried to do while I was teaching a social science, I also have to answer affirmatively to Gregorious’ question. I realize now that I was reading literature to better understand myself, something I rarely found in the discipline I studied for so many years.

Rather, I discovered myself in the novels and stories I read. And as my reading continued, that awareness became clearer and I realized this was the place I had been seeking for quite some time. I believe it was a true discovery and not simply a creation.

In an interview on CBC Tim Parks is reported to have said:

“The reason why we like a book is because we say, Yes, because life is like that, and the reason why we stop reading certain kinds of childish books is because we say, Good story but life’s not like that. The whole question of recognition is terribly important and that’s why as you get older your reading experience inevitably gets richer because you have more of your own experience to bring to it.”

As I grow older, that is exactly what I am finding to be the case, especially now that I recapture memories that for so long had remained hidden. The continuing sense of recognition, some new, some old is one of the reasons I continue to find the experience of reading literature so compelling. Absent any such recognition might put an end to my reading days. However, I cannot imagine a more unlikely occurrence.

Elsewhere Patrick Kurp who writes a blog I greatly admire, has written: “Even as adults we’re looking for correlatives to our lives in everything we read. How else could it be?”

There is something about a work of fiction that reveals the truth of a person as well, if not better, than any other account. Janet Malcolm in her beautiful volume Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey put this well:

“We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories, and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other. But intimacy we mean something much more modest than the glaring exposure to which the souls of fictional characters are regularly held up. We know things about Gurov and Anna—especially about Gurov, since the story is told from his point of view—that they don’t know about each other, and feel no discomfort in our voyeurism. We consider it our due as readers. It does not occur to us that the privacy rights we are so nervously anxious to safeguard for ourselves should be extended to fictional characters.”

It remains an open question how literature does this and I am content for now to leave it a bit of a mystery. Like the pleasure of enjoying a great piece of music, this matter is probably beyond words, beyond explanation anyway. However, on another occasion, I will consider recent attempts to explain the “potential for self-recognition” that makes literature so compelling.


Knowledge is Power

I first learned about the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) college preparatory schools on 60 minutes a few years ago. More recently, KIPP was the subject of a section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell’s treatment highlights the role that the extra time (both number of days of the school year and in-class hours each day) plays in KIPP’s success. But KIPP involves far more than that.

In Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, Jay Mathews writes about the extraordinary success that KIPP’s network of schools has achieved and some of the reasons why. In a nutshell he attributes it to a combination of the following factors:

“---its instituting high expectations for all students, a longer school day, a principal totally in charge, an emphasis on finding the best teachers, rewards for student success, close contact with parents, a focus on results, and a commitment to preparing every child for a great high school, and, most important, college.”

In a review of this book Charles Sahm points to several other factors. They include (1) devoted teachers who stay after school to work with struggling students, (2) “mountains of homework, (3) encouragement of students to call teachers at their home, (4) enriched curriculum, and (5) a strong sense of community among the students, faculty, and parents.

Because of its overwhelming positive results during a time when educators are struggling to improve student learning, KIPP deserves to be looked at closely. Currently the KIPP network consists of 66 schools in 19 states with an enrollment of over 16,000 students. The students represent a wide range of groups—80% are low income and 90% are African American of Latino. What a challenge teaching such a class in an inner city neighborhood must be.

According to the KIPP website, more than 90% of the KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-prep high schools and more than 80% of those who have graduated from the program have gone on to college. Can the KIPP model be widely replicated on a nationwide basis? Surely it will be difficult. But that is what its proponents are currently trying to accomplish.

Sahm concludes his review by writing “KIPP has proved that great teachers, high expectations, extra class time, and much encouragement and commitment can close American’s educational achievement.”

Based on my days of teaching in an academic community, I know how important each of those factors can be, especially in an institution that is primarily devoted to student learning. I also know that much of the pleasure of teaching in a place like that comes from seeing how much academic success can do for a young person.

I taught at Reed College, a liberal arts college in the Northwest, a place of great freedom and intellectual vitality that year after year attracted a group of bright and talented students. They had drawn me to the college and sustained me throughout the 25 years that I was there.

The Reed educational model is not unlike KIPP’s. It is an institution of high intellectual expectations, demanding courses, and a keen sense of community. In turn, it has year after year well surpassed its competitors in the success of its graduates. Reed has consistently ranked in the top five among schools whose graduates go on to earn Ph.D.s in all fields.

Student accomplishment like this is one of the reasons teaching at Reed was so satisfying. I cannot help but believe that teachers at KIPP schools feel much the same way about their students. Student successes contribute to better teaching, which, in turn, enriches the classroom experience. This creates a powerful feedback loop that can make an enormous difference in the lives of the students and teachers who have the good fortune of being in an educational setting like this.


The Light That Falls Upon The City

I am sometimes asked to recommend a good book to read. It doesn’t take me long to respond. While I read Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon over a year ago, I still mention it first and do so without qualification. I haven’t found anything to match it since my first reading.

It is a long novel and one with a ceaseless stream of unanswered questions. But the questions are fascinating and wide-ranging. Raimund Gregorious, the scholar-teacher in the novel wonders:

“How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments?”


I live on the island of Oahu now and do a lot of pondering on the role of the weather in my life, that part of my life that involves “doubts and arguments.” I wonder if all these warm sunny days will finally put an end to my bookish ways.

A while ago I did an analysis of where Nobel Laureates in Literature were from going back as far as 1901, the year the prize was first awarded. Alas, the vast majority were from cold weather climates. Only 9 of the 116 (8%) were from warm weather, usually tropical countries that fall within that band of nations below the Tropic and Cancer and above the Tropic of Capricorn and where one-third of the world’s population is said to live. Of course, that is precisely where the Hawaiian Islands are.

Amadeau Prado, the physician-author in Night Train to Lisbon asks a somewhat similar question about the role of the weather in answering questions about the causes of human action. He says:

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light. On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.

So on a warm summer day, the question seems largely irrelevant, compared to a cold winter day in January. In my case, however, the warm, sunny days in Honolulu have not put an end to my questionings or general doubts about most everything. They are just as relevant here as they have always been. It has not put an end to the work I like to do. Frankly, I’m not doing anything different here than I did in the cold Northwest except feeling content rather than uncomfortable most of the time.

Does the weather matter when it comes to creative achievement? The question calls for a detailed analysis of accomplishments in all the arts and sciences and, at the same, time, knowledge of the exact location where they were made. A reader doesn’t expect a novelist to undertake such an analysis. Indeed, the complexity of the issue has deterred most investigators from looking into it closely

The best that can be done is to examine the creative accomplishments of particular individuals. For instance, Thomas Mann might have been born and lived most of his life in chilly Germany, but I suspect he wrote much of Death in Venice right there in his hotel on the Lido during hot and humid days on the Venetian Lagoon.

In a word, perhaps it doesn’t matter where you live. What matters is what you make of where you live and the life you have led, as well as your talent in translating those experiences into some form of artistic or scientific brilliance.

Surely I am no less creative, wiser or productive where it is warm than I am where it is cold. In fact, I think the weather probably has no uniform effect on how thoughtful or clear-headed a person is. Maybe some work better on a sunny, warm day or think they do, while others prefer to work on dark and rainy days. At least the winter was more likely to keep you indoors, pounding away at the keyboard. Maybe that’s why so many Nobel Laureates in Literature came from the freezing North. But I am surely not in their league anyway.


Commonplace Book

Swift in his Letter of Advice to a Young Poet explains why it is important to keep a commonplace book:

A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.

Less prosaically, I refer to the collected volume of passages that I have transcribed from the books and periodicals I have read as my Commonplace Book. Basically it is an unannotated, cumulative record of the ideas, questions, and well-written prose selections from my reading each year.

After analyzing my Commonplace Book a couple of years ago, I went back and organized the passages into several sets of the most frequently mentioned themes—Justice, Change, Communication, Age, Literature, etc.

This practice has been a feature of each issue of the American Scholar for many years where it is known as Commonplace Book. The two-page section consists of a collection extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic, listed without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, and Marriage. Grief is the topic of the current issue.

Sobbing seems to be peculiar to the human species….The grief-muscles are not very often brought into play; and as the action is often momentary, it easily escapes observation. Charles Darwin The Expression of the Emotions, 1872

Dear Fanny: It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. Abraham Lincoln condolence letter to the daughter of an old friend, 1862

The theme of Beauty, the subject of a blog I wrote late last year, was one of the most frequently noted topics of the passages I recorded in my Commonplace Book. The subject continues to preoccupy me. Why do we call something beautiful? Is there something common in the things we say are beautiful?

I have selected a few of my favorite passages on Beauty to post below. They include thoughts about the concept itself or especially beautiful passages from the books that I’ve read:

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
We were thirsty for some form of beauty.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were too dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Alan Lightman, Reunion
How pitiful his life suddenly seemed compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.

Janet Malcolm Travels with Chekhov New Yorker February 21 & 28 2000
The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it mush have sounded when the there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress toward perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings — the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

Eliot Pearlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity
…the sunlight you carried with you. Eliot Pearlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

…that sense of being alive that comes with being in the glow or aura of a woman’s beauty.

In Another Country Ernest Hemingway
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan and dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff, and heavy and empty and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.


Weekend Links

Shakespeare and Company

Automatic Pilot

What’s a Nudge?

On Updike

The Big Read

Epistolary Poetry


Exceptions to the Rule

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers currently ranks number 2 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; it has been high on the list for the past 15 weeks. As I noted in my February 6th blog, the popularity of Gladwell’s books is a matter of concern to me, as I believe his arguments are only superficially credible. When considered more critically, they are often, in my view, seriously in error.

The best that any reader can do is to approach them with some degree of skepticism. Look for the exceptions to his claims and to the flaws in his logic. That is the only way a reader can go beyond their apparent validity to know if they are genuinely sound. One of the few reviewers who have done that is Joseph Epstein in his Weekly Standard essay, Jack-Out-of-the Box.

At the outset Epstein makes it clear that Gladwell has a practice of setting up straw men as the “received opinion and conventional wisdom” of the day. For instance, Gladwell’s central point is that “personal explanations of success don’t work.” Whoever claimed that was all there was to explaining success?

Gladwell claims that the magical 10,000-hour rule of practice is required to achieve any degree of success. How bizarre! Whoever believed that success in any field does not come without countless hours of dedicated practice? But 10,000 hours? Who can ever know how many hours any genius devotes to his or her craft?

By identifying several exceptions to Gladwell’s arguments, Epstein exposes the major limitations of his account. Any reader might best approach Outliers in a similar fashion. Think of an exceptionally successful person and try to explain his or her success. Is their life history consistent with Gladwell’s view?

Regarding the very considerable success of Bill Gates, Epstein says “Gates wouldn’t have been the success he is today if he hadn’t been born wealthy and sent to a private school that could afford him unlimited time to work on a mainframe computer…” He then points to Steve Jobs, who Epstein claims came from a broken home, grew up with adoptive parents, and had none of the advantages that Gates did. Exception number 1.

Gladwell seems to discount the importance of natural talent, the kind of talent you are born with (leaving open the question of how that occurs). For example, he argues that the time of the year a person is born is crucial for athletic success in hockey and soccer. Epstein counters by saying that over time athletic ability tends to even out and so will physical gifts.

Here, he points to Michael Jordan who reached his full height rather late in his youth. He mentions Brett Favre who is possessed of “physical courage of a kind that date of birth, culture, or anything else can’t explain.” In turn, I will mention Roger Federer whose genius on the tennis court is a matter of “mystery and metaphysics” as David Foster Wallace put it. Exceptions 2, 3, and 4.

Gladwell argues that people born between 1935 and 1945 benefited from belonging to an extremely small birth cohort that in turn led to smaller classes and less difficulty in getting in to the college of their choice. Epstein adds: “…this generation, of which I happen to be a member, has never put a president in the White House. Go figure.”

Gladwell discuss the Beatles at some length and attributes their success to the many long hours they spent in their early years playing all night in the bars and strip clubs of Hamburg. Again, he ignores the natural musical talent that surely played a role in their enormous success. As Epstein says: “But they also happen to have had, in Paul McCartney and John Lennon, two immensely gifted songwriters, along with a fortuitous—and no doubt fortuitous—combination of personalities and talents…” Eliminate Lennon, eliminate McCartney—poof! The Beatles are just four more working-class kids hoping to win the rock’n’roll lottery.” Score another exception or two.

Lastly, Gladwell spends a good deal of time comparing the fortunes of two men of very high intelligence—Chris Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He claims Oppenheimer became the success he did because he, unlike Langan, had the benefit of a superb education, a cultivated, wealthy family, and a “sense of entitlement,” none of which was available to Langan. In response, Epstein writes that Oppenheimer “…was a man of such suavity, subtlety, and layered complexity as to be quite beyond Malcolm Gladwell’s ken and comprehension.”

In his effort to discount the role of natural talent, a keen sense of desire, and distinctive personality, Gladwell simplifies throughout his treatment the incredible complexity and variability that govern the course of anyone’s life. Yes, culture, date of birth, effort, social class, ethnic background, etc are all important. But so are chance, merit, gumption, and all those unknown factors that combine in totally mysterious and unpredictable ways to give rise to extraordinary achievement.

Explaining exceptional accomplishment is surely not as straightforward as Gladwell implies. There are limits, boundary conditions, if you will, for each of the factors he identifies. It is his failure to acknowledge these constraints and to make any effort to deal with them that make Outliers so misleading and presumptions to me. Epstein is to be praised for making the effort to confront these realities squarely.


David Foster Wallace

It was over two years ago that I read an elegant essay on tennis by David Foster Wallace. It is one the most memorable piece of sports journalism that I’ve ever encountered. To be more specific, Wallace wrote about the miraculous game of tennis that Roger Federer plays. Wallace calls watching Federer play in person a religious experience, not almost religious, rather genuinely religious. It is also a thing of beauty and grace. Wallace writes:

“The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching Federer play tennis, even if was on TV, which Wallace says is a poor approximation of watching him play in person, you’ll understand what he means. This is the case even on those days, which were uncommonly numerous last year, when Federer wasn’t winning. Wallace calls his miraculous plays “Federer Moments” and attributes his genius to three factors: “One involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.”

David Foster Wallace committed suicide last year. He had been deeply depressed throughout most of his adult life and was only able to survive as long as he did with one or more of the anti-depressive medications he took. Although, Wallace never wrote about his own mental illness, in a short story titled The Depressed Person, he did write about these drugs: “None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every walking hour an indescribable hell on earth.” It is hard not to believe he wasn’t at the same time talking about himself.

Wallace is the subject of a sadly engrossing profile by D. T. Max in a recent New Yorker. Max writes:

“He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace’s outside passion for the printed word at a time when it looked like, it needed champions.”

His incredibly lengthy novels (Broom, Infinite Jest and the unfinished The Pale King) are full of facts, qualifications, footnotes, witty language, lengthy sentences and a large number of digressions. Wallace also wrote three collections of short stores, two books of essays and one titled Everything and More, a history of infinity that reflects his background in philosophy and mathematics.

Max’s profile is rich with details about Wallace’s life, illnesses, and his novels. According to Max, Wallace was continually struggling with the question of the purpose of fiction and never felt that he had answered it satisfactorily. Here are some of the things he said:

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. Good writing should help readers to become less alone inside.”

“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that thee are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

Until then [when he began to write fiction] Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information.

…he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could and also provide some of the same comfort.

This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values and it’s our job to make them up.

The Pale King
, the novel Wallace was trying so desperately to finish at the time of his death, explores his continuing preoccupation with boredom. He apparently assembled page after page of research studies about it trying to come to a better understanding of the desolation it can give rise to.

The novel centers on a group of IRS agents who spend hours, day after day, year after year auditing tax returns. Max suggests that Wallace felt that “Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment” leaving open the matter of what “properly handled” means. For Wallace it meant:

“Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find [Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Be mindful, concentrate on the important things, the things that will devastate you once you lose them.

As Max notes in conclusion, Wallace’s death was not an ending “anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.”


The Car in Literature

I return to the car for an additional comment. While automobiles play such a central role in the life of most individuals, as far as I know, they hardly play any role in contemporary literary fiction. However, there is one notable literary exception, It is in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon depicted in the novel, keeps a silver Mercedes S 500 parked in a nearby garage. McEwan describes what this car means to Henry who tries to see it, or feel it, in historical terms and in so doing makes it clear that there’s nothing about a car that cannot be the stuff of fiction:

“...this moment in the last decades of the petroleum age, when a nineteenth-century device [automobile] is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty-first…

Henry lives in a fashionable section of London where three and four story townhouses were built around a central square long before anyone ever heard of an automobile, let alone a garage in which to park it. So Henry must walk to down the way a bit to collect his car parked along with others inside a nearby building

He walks down a faint incline of greasy cobbles to where the owners of houses like his own once kept their horses. Now, those who can afford it cosset their cars here with off-street parking. Attached to his key ring is an infrared button which he presses to raise a clattering steel shutter. It’s revealed in mechanical jerks, the long nose and shining eyes at the stable door, chafing to be free. A silver Mercedes S 500 with cream upholstery— and he’s no longer embarrassed by it. He doesn’t even love it—it’s simply a sensual part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods. If he didn’t own it, he tries to tell himself, someone else would. He hasn’t driven it in a week, but in the gloom of the dry dustless garage the machine breathes an animal warmth of his own…

It’s Theo [Henry’s son] who disapproves most, saying it’s a doctor’s car, as if this were the final word in condemnation. Daisy, [Henry’s daughter] on the other hand, said she thought that Harold Pinter owned something like it, which made it all fine with her. Roslind [Henry’s wife] encouraged him to buy it. She thinks his life is too guiltily austere, and never buying clothes or good wine or a single painting is a touch pretentious. Still living like a postgraduate student. It was time for him to fill out.

Still Henry has mixed feelings about the car. Yes, he doesn’t drive it much. And at one time it embarrassed him to have such a fancy car. But he likes having it, owning it, having it there, much like a piece of jewelry or a Picasso on the wall. Then there are those days, when he takes the car out on the road and his ambivalence about the thing vanishes very quickly:

For months he drove it apologetically, rarely in fourth gear, reluctant to overtake, waving on right-turning traffic, punctilious in permitting cheaper cars their road space. He was cured at last by a fishing trip to north-west Scotland with Jay Strauss [Fellow physician]. Seduced by the open road and Jay’s exultant celebration of “Lutheran genius,” Henry finally accepted himself as the owner, the master, of his vehicle.…He and Jay fished the streams…One wet afternoon, glancing over his shoulder while casting, Henry saw his car…and felt for the first time a gentle, swooning joy of possession. It is, of course possible, permissible, to love an inanimate object. But this moment was the peak of the affair; since then his feelings have settled into mild , occasional pleasure. The car gives him vague satisfaction when he’s driving it; the rest of the time it rarely crosses his mind. As its makers intended and promised, it’s become part of him.”

Yes, I often felt that way about my car too. It became a part of me, an extension, another limb as it were. We were melded together as one. But it had to be that car and no other. Now that I look back upon that feeling, I realize how stupid I was, how much havoc and destruction the automobile has led to. Like Henry, I often felt embarrassed by my driving machine and I hardly drove it at all. I too was “addicted” to the thing, to both having it and using it. I know now that feeling this way is no long possible, that it is, in fact, untenable, that it must abandoned for good. Will a large segment of the population ever come to feel this way? Well, that is the 24 dollar question, isn’t it?


The Automobile

To my surprise there was lengthy essay on car sharing in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, one of the most widely read magazines in the country. Since I had been involved in the development of the first commercial car sharing organization in this country, I had always wanted to write this article but I could never have done it was well as its author, Mark Levine, did. Levine discusses the history of the car sharing movement, the major car sharing organizations in this country, and how they are changing the way we drive automobiles.

For years I wanted to give up my car when I lived in Portland. Like so many others in the Northwest, I continued to be dismayed by the way the automobile had taken over the landscape. The countryside is cluttered with highways and urban sprawl. Cars, roadways, and garages dominate the major cities. Summer air quality alerts occur routinely now in Portland. Seattle is ranked in the top ten most heavily congested cities in the nation.

Similar situations exist in most of the major metropolitan areas of this country, while very little headway has been made in solving the many problems the automobile has brought to our communities. There is no mystery about this. Each time I thought of giving up my car, I pull back in the face of a long list of anticipated inconveniences, hassles, and endless delays. I am sure I’m not alone my thinking.

However, a few years ago I was pleased to be a part of a group of individuals who decided to try to do something about this dilemma. We were aware of the development of car sharing in Europe, especially in Switzerland and Germany. These programs were based on the notion that it is access to a car that is crucial. You didn’t have to own one for that. It was only necessary to have one available when you needed to drive somewhere.

A car-sharing organization consists of a group of individuals who share a fleet of cars much as members of a farm co-op share agricultural equipment or library users share books. Car sharing provides access to a vehicle when walking, cycling or public transit is not possible. It differs from auto renting by providing a car for very short periods, say for an hour. Members are usually charged only for the mileage and time they use the car with the full costs of maintenance, insurance, and fuel paid by the organization.

Here’s how it works. When you need a car, you simply reserve it for as long you want on the organization’s website. The cars are, typically located within three blocks of your residence at one of the permanent sites located throughout city neighborhoods. Today all you need to do is head over to the car you’ve reserved, swipe you membership card on the windshield, whereupon the door opens, fetch the key kept in the glove compartment and head off. When you’ve finished your trip, return the car to the place you picked it up and swipe the card again to lock the doors. Bingo--your fee is charged to your credit card.

Zipcar is the largest car sharing organization in this country with over 275,000 and 5,500 cars including those it also has in Canada and London. There are also several non-profit groups in this country and Canada that compete with the for-profit companies. Car sharing is clearly not for everyone but based on evidence collected in Europe and this country, it makes economic sense for individuals who drive less than 10,000 miles a year and do not have to commute to work every day. It also appeals to individuals who do not own a car or would like to give up one or more of those they own. Car-sharing also meets occasional transportation needs far less expensively than a taxi or rental service and more conveniently than public transit. Unlike owning a single car, it also provides access to a range of vehicles, such as a pick-up, minivan, or utility vehicle.

Do people drive less once they join a car sharing organization and thereby contribute in some small measure to the reduction of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions? In my view the research on this question is equivocal when the total vehicle miles of travel of automobile owners, who tend to drive less, is combined with the non-automobile owners who tend to drive more. What is clear, however, is that the car-owners are more likely to give up one or more of the cars they owned before joining the organization, which when it occurs across a large population of drivers can have an enormous impact on traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and petroleum usage.

I know that switching to a car sharing mode of travel will not be easy. But I also know it is time to do something about the transportation problems in this country. Joining a car sharing organization is one way to contribute to a solution. If other individuals make the same choice, we may, at long last, begin to make a dent in the rising financial and environmental costs of automobile driving.

I invite you to read the very excellent article in the Times if you are interested in knowing more about the car sharing concept, Or write to me for further references or information.


Book Groups

Although I’ve never participated in a book group, I’ve been hearing about them for years. According to a recent estimate there are roughly four to five million such groups in the United States. I am told there is an annual Book Group Exposition and even a professional book group facilitator who you can hire to guide your group for an annual fee of $250-$300. Now there’s a job for the countless unemployed readers in this country.

In my long time search for readers of the kind of books that I like, I thought I’d try my hand at forming group in my new hometown. After several failed attempts, I succumbed to the lure of language and the Internet and posted a notice with a “seductive” title on the Groups page of the local Craigslist.

Rather than call it a book group, I referred to it as a Salon. Basically that’s what I wanted to create anyway. By labeling it a “salon” I was not referring to a place to have my hair cut. Rather I meant a gathering of individuals to discuss a book, an issue, or any common interest or goal during afternoon coffee or tea. Doing this has a long history in several European countries especially during the 18th and 19th century. The idea appealed to me a great deal and I thought it would be the sort of term that would mean something to a reader who is serious about literature and quite willing to leave the drama to the books they ostensibly discussed, rather than the personal lives of the discussants.

Eventually, I received one response from a person who was a freelance writer for the Associated Press. That was it. She, in turn, asked a few of her friends to join and was successful in obtaining 4 individuals, all women with very busy lives at work or at home with children. So we were a group of 6, 5 women and one aging yuppie.

However, they all wanted to read a book I was not the least bit interested in (Annie Proulx’s new collection of short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is). In addition, they wanted and could only meet at a time when I could not. I realized this was not for me, not the book the wanted to read, not the time or the day they preferred. So I bowed out as gracefully as I could.

More importantly, I realized I really prefer to be a solitary reader with a pen in hand. In a note about communal reading Gregory Cowles put it best: “…reading has more in common with the cloisters that it does with the congregation.” Perhaps one day I will meet in person a serious reader and then we will be a twosome to talk about the books we both enjoy.

That surely won’t happen until I enter the Pearly Gates and can sit down one afternoon at the feet of Mr. Harold Bloom himself. Or wonder of wonders, I locate a like-minded reader on this island in the Pacific. Again, Cowles expressed it well: “And there is an undeniable thrill when you discover that the beautiful stranger on the subway likes Alice Munro as much as you do.”


Weekend Links

Writing: Is writing a pleasure or a pain?


New Novel: New Anita Brookner

Reading: Books on the iPhone

Secrets: Have you told this lie?

Cinema: Lost in translation

Speaking: Harmonies of disparate voices

Cheever: Was his own existence was a mistake?


Susan Sontag

For years I have admired the work of Susan Sontag. But I have done so from a distance for the breadth of her erudition is so far beyond me as to be virtually unapproachable. Nevertheless, I was eager to read Volume 1 of her journals, recently published under the title Reborn. They cover the period of her life between 1947-1963, beginning with her adolescence, college experiences, marriage, years abroad in Paris and Oxford, as well as the birth of her son, David Rieff, who has taken on the task of editing the material.

She began writing them as a teenager, a precocious one at least in terms of literature. Her reading appetite was voracious. Soon it became clear that was also true of her sex life. She was a great believer in making lists and the journals abound with them, including one in the beginning which I have condensed slightly:

I believe:
(a) that there is no personal god or life after death
(b) that the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e. Honesty
(c) that the only difference between human beings is intelligence.
(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy
(e) That is wrong to deprive any man of life
(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state…should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines…

There are countless list of books in Reborn that she has read or would like to read. Here is a partial list of the first:

The Counterfeiters—Gide
Tar—Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within—Ludwig Lewishon
Sanctuary—William Faulkner
Diary of a Writer—Dostoyevsky
Johnny Got His Gun—Dalton Trumbo
The Forsyte Saga—Galsworthy
The Egoist—George Meredith

Sontag was devoted to the cinema. Rieff notes that one of the notebooks from 1961 is simply a list of films seen. He writes: “On no occasion is there a break of more than four days between films seen; most often [she] notes having seen at least one, and not infrequently, two or three films per day.” That was surely the golden era of the cinema, for today we live in an time when we are lucky if we can find one decent film to see during the week.

Perhaps the best way to convey the intensity and range of Sontag’s life during this period is to quote directly some of her entries:

On Journaling: In the journal I do not just express myself more open than I could do to any person; I create myself.

On Needs: All I feel, most immediately, is the most anguished need for physical love and mental companionship.

On Music: Music is the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts—it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure—and the most sensual.

On Marriage: Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong mutual dependencies.

On Writing: Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose….I write to define myself—an act of self-creation—part of the process of becoming—In dialogue with myself, with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers…

In the introduction to Reborn Reiff wonders whether he should have published his mother’s journals since she never made her wishes known to him. To be sure the journals are frank, intimate, cranky, often little more than sexual bookkeeping and emotional quarreling. Yet simultaneously they depict a life that is dedicated to the arts and literature that, as Rieff notes are matters of life and death for his mother and “where seriousness is the greatest good.” Like a fine film, you are fortunate if you encounter a single such person every now and then.


Still Alice

I have known people who had Alzheimer’s Disease and it has been heartbreaking to try to be with them. It is something to be concerned about as your time draws to a close. What would the experience be like? Are my ordinary memory lapses signs of something more serious? There are 5 million people in the United States who have Alzheimer’s. Am I next?

While much has been written about the neurophysiology of the disease, little is known about what it is like to experience it. Anyone who tries to write about it is limited by the fact that they are either beset with it or are only able to observe how the stricken person behaves.

Still Alice
a striking and moving fictional attempt to describe the experience from the point of view of an individual who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It was written by Lisa Genova who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard. Currently she is an online columnist for the Alzheimer’s Association and has begun work on her second novel. Genova’s initial attempt to publish the book was rejected by over 100 literary agents and almost as many publishers. Eventually she managed to sell the book to a major publisher; it has become a best seller and currently ranks number 9 on the New York Times trade paperback fiction list.

Still Alice
unfolds the course of Alzheimer’s in Alice Hovland who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the age of 50. At that time she was a distinguished, widely published Professor of Psychology at Harvard. The novel traces the course of the “molecular mayhem” of the disease as Alice begins to loose any connection with herself and the surrounding world

At first she couldn’t find a word in a sentence she was trying to finish. “She has a loose sense for what she wanted to say, but the word itself eluded her.” Then one day she became lost on a familiar street in Cambridge. She had trouble following conversations, could no longer make sense of research papers. She forgets the people she had just met at a party. One day she goes to the class she is teaching and sits in the back with the students waiting for the lecturer to appear. She gets angry, forgets a recipe she has made every year at Christmas, puts her Blackberry in the freezer, and enters the home of a nearby neighbor after returning from a run. . It is a horrible descent into mental oblivion and while it is a fictional account it sounds to me very much like what the actual experience must be.

Eventually she is asked to leave the department and turn over her research and teaching responsibilities to other faculty members. It is a graceful departure. Still she tries desperately to carve out a life for herself. She organizes a support group of early onset Alzheimer’s patients, volunteers to write for an Alzheimer’s organization, and visits with her children each of whom, along with her husband, also a neuroscientist at Harvard, devote as much time as they can in caring for her.

Astonishingly, she is able to deliver an address at an Alzheimer’s Association conference. She writes an eloquent speech and reads it without error. “We feel like we are neither here nor there….I am losing my yesterdays. If you ask me what I did yesterday, what happened, what I saw and felt and heard, I’d be hard pressed to give you details…Being diagnosed with Alzheimers’s is like being branded with a scarlet A….My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what I do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”

At the end of her speech every member of the audience was standing and remained clapping for quite some time. A few tears were visible, including one my own. I found Still Alice one of the most poignant accounts of Alzheimer’s Disease that I have read.

For readers interested in learning more about what this experience is like to those to whom it comes and their caregivers, I strongly recommend the book. It ranks with John Baley’s Elegy for Iris an equally moving account his wife’s (Alice Murdoch), descent into Alzheimer’s and Away from Her, the film Sarah Polley wrote and directed of Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came over the Mountain.

In her preface to a reprinting of Munro’s story Polley remarks: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn’t understand until years later….I can say without danger of overstatement that I have had a relationship with this story that has been as powerful and as transformative as any I have had with another human being….The story reshaped my idea of love..”


The Schopenhauer Cure

In my post (Feb 4, 2009) about physicians who are or become writers I neglected to mention Irvin D. Yalom. Yalom is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University who has written two highly regarded textbooks, Existential Psychotherapy and The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, as well as several short stories and novels related to his therapeutic practice.

On his website he notes that it was “mainly in fiction where I found a refuge, an alternative, more satisfying world, a source of inspiration and wisdom. Sometime early in life I developed the notion—one which I have never relinquished—that writing a novel is the very finest thing a person can do.” And while he decided to a pursue training in medicine he knew from the beginning that he would eventually go into psychiatry.

In his novel The Schopenhauer Cure Yalom describes the experience of a psychotherapist who, when confronted with his own mortality following a routine physical exam, begins to wonder about his former patients and whether or not he made any difference in their lives. He is especially interested in one patient who he treated unsuccessfully for sex addiction many years ago. Julius tracks down this individual, Philip, who much to his surprise has become a philosophical counselor dedicated to educating his clients about the power of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in overcoming their problems.

Throughout the novel, Yalom describes Julius’s ruminations as he approaches the end. He sees a woman walking toward him: She’s probably no older than me. In fact, she’s my future—the wart, the walker, the wheelchair. As she came closer, he heard her mumbling. And he comes to the realization that …to grow old gracefully I had to accept the limiting of possibilities. No longer would any “nubile, breasty girls with the Snow White faces … turn his way with a copy smile and say, “Hey, haven’t seen you here for a while. How’s it going?”

And yet, at the same time he is aware that: Though he had loved Miriam from the moment he laid eyes on her in the tenth grade, he simultaneously resented her as an obstacle blocking him from the multitude of women he felt entitled to enjoy. He had never completely acknowledged that his mate-search was over or that his freedom to follow his lust was in the slightest way curtailed.

What is one to make of this apparent contradiction? Whenever I think about this sort of dilemma, I recall a remark Jane Smiley made in an essay about marriage:

Let’s say there is only one thing we know about men: that they feel a tension between monogamy and promiscuity. Let’s further say that the balance of that tension is different in different men, and that possibly the balance is inherited, and it changes as the men age, sometimes from monogamy toward promiscuity and sometimes from promiscuity toward monogamy.

Much of the Schopenhauer Cure describes the meetings of Julius’ therapy group composed of former clients, including Philip who is relentless in his explanations of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In this way Yalom contrasts his own approach to therapy with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic views about the conditions that give rise to change.

It’s not ideas, nor vision, nor tools that truly matter in therapy. If you debrief patients at the end of therapy about the process, what do they remember? Never the ideas—its always the relationship.

We should treat with indulgence every human folly, failing and vice, bearing in mind that what we have before us are simply our own failings, follies, and vices. For they are just the failings of mankind to which we also belong and accordingly we have all the same failings buried within ourselves. We should not be indignant with others for these vices simply because they not appear in us at the moment.

In spite of its academic flavor, I greatly enjoyed reading The Schopenhauer Cure. It is that rare mix of philosophical and personal reflection combined in an ongoing dialogue between individuals who have led lives of considerable interest.