Write a Letter Today

At a party one night in New York, the then-young heroine and wife-to-be in Rafael Yglesias’ A Happy Marriage exclaims to her suitor:

Don’t call! Write me a letter. That’s what’s wrong with men and women today. There’s no letter writing. We need to get back to the way it was in Jane Austen’s day.”

I think a great many people bemoan or “complain about the lost art of letter writing now that we’re all busy texting and tweeting and Facebooking and whatever” as Jenna Krajeski writes at The Book Bench.

What is lost is the opportunity for the letter writer to compose a reasoned expression of an idea, an experience, to speculate and describe in more than a word or two a series of events or beliefs. There is also the loss to the recipient who has the pleasure of reading the account, giving it some thought, and then replying in turn.

The historian also loses the record of the exchange, one that makes it possible for others, regardless of their purpose, to learn about the exchange and the relationship between the correspondents.

Krajeski points us in the direction of a Web site, Letters of Note that “…is an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and even emails.” (I am not quite sure how Shaun Usher, the letter collector, manages to obtain copies of emails, unless those who write them are in the practice of saving their gems.) Letters of Note has links to its most read letters and a set of categories that include art, cinema, law, politics, religion, technology, etc.

Krajeski writes optimistically, “Maybe it will renew young folk’s interest in the dying art.” I wouldn’t bet on it--that is for sure. It is hard enough to read a full page of electronic text, let alone compose one of equal length, electronic or otherwise.

Of course, you could also go in search of Jen Hofer, who recently set-up a letter writing stand in New York’s Union Square. Just head over her way, tell her what you’d like to say and to whom, and bingo for $3.00 she will write, address, and stamp the letter for you. Perhaps it won’t be long before she or someone else creates a Web site where the letter-writing-challenged can do the same.

This will no doubt lead to a letter writing Renaissance that will please historians and letter writing collectors and that may turn out, after all, to confirm Karjeski’s prediction that the letter writing traditions of yesteryear will make a comeback.


Half & Half

In commenting on the photo of sliced up copy of A Suitable Boy, at Book Bench Thessaly La Force writes:

A colleague of mine once tried to read Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy.” Finding it too heavy for travel, she tore the book apart. Some might say, “sacrilege,” but I say, “practical.”

Why would you ever have to tear a book apart? Put it in your backpack if you can’t fit it in your suitcase. Or take it with you in your carry-on travel bag.

I can't imagine ever wanting or needing to tear a book apart. If you had a hardback copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and no room in your suitcase or backpack for it, would you slice it down the middle? Why the middle? You’d probably need to slice that tome into tenths.

If you had a 1,000 year old beautifully translated version of War and Peace that you had no room in your suitcase or backpack for, would you slice it down the middle?

I used to know someone who would tear the pages out of a book once she had finished a page. She did that to avoid marking her place in the book with a bookmark. What a booklover she was!

Of course, I only saw her do that when she was reading cheap paperback novels. Since I never saw her reading David Foster Wallace or Leo Tolstoy, I doubt if she ever had need for anything as humdrum as a bookmark.

Books are treasures the most treasured of all treasures. They are sacred. From one who values books and devotes much of their life to them now, I can’t imagine cutting one into separate portions, paperback or hardback, practical or not.

The heaviness of books is often given as a reason to favor the Kindle and others electronic readers like it. An electronic version of Infinite Jest would fit right into your coat pocket or purse. But the Kindle is not a book, although it might be argued it provides the same message as a book does.

But the reading experience is altogether different. And for those of us raised before the digital age, reading always meant more than the message. It also involved the mode of delivery and the situation in which it was delivered--the typeface, the cover, the paper, the size of the book, the binding, etc.


The Soul of Venice

Video of the Week as a preview of Ackroyd's Venice: Pure City


Literary Blogging II

David Myers at A Commonplace Blog begins his summing up of the literary blogging interviews (links to the last seven are posted below) by noting:

After nearly two weeks of reflection on book blogging by some of the best bloggers out there, what have we learned? That book blogging expands the range of book discussion. That it is a form of literary criticism, however implicitly. That it is more conversational but also more ephemeral than formal criticism. That it may be cynical, but is always rooted in a love for books. That it is still in its infancy. That the audience for it is small. That it is unpaid.

After reading the symposiasts who participated in The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, I am encouraged by the wit, knowledge, and book sense on exhibition in a few well-tended parks of the literary blogscape. But I am also discouraged about the future of book blogging. I no longer believe, as I once did, that book blogs might revive a free-wheeling and raucous literary culture. The source of my discouragement is our symposiasts’ conception of blogging. Terry Teachout puts it best: blogging is “introspection made public.

I began blogging a little over a year ago. I am sure there were several reasons although who can ever be sure of one’s motives or their recollections of why they did something? I know I found increasing pleasure in reading and wanted to talk about it with someone or, at least, give expression to my thoughts. I thought blogging about what I was reading might be one way to start. It might also help me to clarify the ideas I was reading about and why I did or didn’t like the material. Everyone seemed to be doing it. I thought why not give it a try.

My initial plan was simply to post some of the notable passages from the books and periodicals I had read over the years. The passages were to be drawn from my Commonplace Book where they were kept throughout this time. I recall my first post was a sample of the forty-five passages I had saved from Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

My model was the “Commonplace Section” from each issue of the American Scholar. They consist of extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic, listed on two pages of this publication without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, Marriage, and in the most recent issue the timely theme of Debt.

It hasn’t really turned out that way at all. Instead, I have found so much to write about in the books I’ve been reading lately and the abundant material on the Web, that I’ve not really had a chance to post very many passages from my Commonplace Book.

My hope is to begin doing that selectively. I’ve read so many fine books over the years and saved page after page of passages from them, that there’s a great deal to discuss, although it does require a pretty good memory of the story and characters. I think the best approach would be to take some of the best passages and respond to them in the form of annotations. I will try to do that more frequently during the next year of blogging.

The Neglected Books Page

On The Seawall

Nota Bene Books

I’ve Been Reading Lately

House of Mirth

Anecdotal Evidence

A Commonplace Blog


Mysteries of Silence

From the front flap of Sonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson, a beautifully written book that moved me deeply:

On a midsummer day in Auckland, New Zealand, two events occur that will change composer Adam Ankar’s life forever. As a result, Adam embarks on a journey to uncover his family’s past that takes him from New Zealand to Krakow, Poland, where he learns of his parents’ fate during World War II, and finally to Sweden. There he meets the mother of his child for the first time in over twenty years and must face the impossible choice she once forced him to make.

In Sonata for Miriam a musician searches for his roots, his real family, and the woman he fell in love with long ago. There is much that is never said in this novel as silence and unspoken words become its central theme. The following quotation appears on the first page:

But words must be found, for besides words there is almost nothing. Szymon Laks

Adam Ankar never knew who his father was for most of his life. He says, Silence was imposed on me from the very beginning, and I lived with it until it because my own. There were no answers, so there was no place for questions. Adam’s mother was silent about his family, where they came from, and who his father was, and Adam found it impossible to ask her about him.

They had fled from Poland to Sweden during the war where he eventually fell in love with another musician, Cecilia. After she becomes pregnant, she asks him to choose between her and their child. We never learn exactly why and neither of them ever speaks about it. The choice confronting Adam is excruciating, but in the end he chooses to raise their daughter, Miriam, and together they move to a remote island in New Zealand.

He repeats the pattern of silence that his mother set by never speaking to Miriam about her past. When she dies in a tragic accident, he returns to Poland to unravel the mystery of his past and then to Sweden to meet Cecilia after their long separation. But even then, he finds it difficult to talk with her.

But words were never my medium. It was silence that I had been taught. I was an expert on silence. And then, when I needed words more than ever in my life, they completely eluded me.

Ceclia lives alone, also on a remote island, where she and Adam finally meet. Still after nearly two decades of silence, she also finds it difficult to seek the information that you would expect here to crave. She says, I think I became an artist because in my art I was able to express what I could never say.

Together they …sat is silence, holding our glasses, watching the fire.

Cecilia says, Let’s not talk. Not Yet. … if we could keep it at bay, we could draw out this moment that seemed to sit between the past and the present, perilously balancing between memory and hope.


Literary Blogging Part I

In a recent series of interviews organized by Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence
and David Myers of A Commonplace Blog fourteen literary bloggers were asked a series of questions about blogging. While you might want to put different questions to the bloggers, here are the nine that Kurp and Myers posed:

1. What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

2. Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

3. How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

4. How do you respond to this statement?: Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.

5. How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

6. What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

7. Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

8. In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have "earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not," because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers "to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better." Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

9. Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

The links to the first seven responses follow:

Elberry’s Ghost

American Fiction Notes

Laudator Temporis Acti


Books, Inq.—The Epilogue

The Little Professor

About Last Night


In Transit

Marks in the Margin will be on another break as I am in transit now from Honolulu to Portland, Oregon where I had previously lived for 40 years.

Living for a year on a tropical island in the middle of the ocean has been an extraordinary experience.

Hemingway once wrote a six word short story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

I need a few more words: I often ask myself how can I ever leave this place. There is only one reason. And so we leave.



I had hoped to go to Paris this summer. I had planned to take the train from London after visiting a friend in England. I thought of it more or less as my swan song. Long before Florence took hold of me, Paris was the place I always loved most. But a few days before I was to leave, I caught a very bad cold and did not want to become seriously ill so far from home. So I cancelled the trip and instead read Hemingway memoir of his early writing days in Paris, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition.

It was good to read the book again and frankly I can’t tell how or where it’s been restored nor am I interested in the reasons it was done. Hemingway takes you right into the mood of being in Paris, a Paris that I’m sure still exists and is what I had hoped to discover in my own time there.

He goes to the cafes a great deal--some to write, some to talk, and some to hide, and some to eat or drink. Everyone had their private cafes there where they never invited anyone and would go to work, or to read or to receive their mail. I can’t imagine writing much of anything in that terribly interesting and therefore distracting setting. But I can imagine talking. But with whom? I don’t know anyone in Paris. Does it matter?

He writes about the craft of writing and how he did it and how to do it better. I am sure that is one of the reasons I read it the first time and very definitely the most recently too.

Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about.

Work could cure almost anything. I believed then, and I believe it now.

To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.

…mot juste—the one and only correct word to use

How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?

It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.

…Paris, the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is….

…how good a book is should be judged by the man who writes it by the excellence of the material that he eliminates.

And then he writes about what it felt like to be in Paris. These passages are among the most beautiful in the book.

The trees were beautiful without their leaves when you were reconciled to them, and the winter winds blew across the surfaces of the ponds and the fountains were blowing in the bright light.

Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold wintry light.

Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.

And Hemingway writes about the people he knew in Paris, the people who became his friends. He writes a great deal about Scott Fitzgerald and somewhat less about Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach. He had many friends and many others who he didn’t care for at all.

The only things that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Everybody has something wrong with them.

The last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again.

For the girl to deceive her friend was a terrible thing but it was my fault and blindness that this did not repel me. Having become involved in it and being in love I accepted all the blame for it myself and lived with the remorse.

And so I didn’t go to Paris this summer and I am not sure if there will ever be another chance. Instead, I will have to depend on Ernest Hemingway to take me there and back. There are advantages of that—no jet lag, no budget-busting expenses, no effort at all. Just a book and a comfortable chair.


Bookless Libraries

A friend sent me word of yet another library that is replacing its books with computer work stations. In this case it is the library at Cushing Academy, a New England prep school. The school is spending millions to build a digital learning center filled with computer stations, laptop friendly study carrels, and large flat screen TVs that will project data from the Internet. The headmaster reports he sees books as an “outmoded technology.”

Still more and more books are being printed each year. However, the number of library books in circulation is not growing in tandem as most librarians report that their circulation figures are holding steady or decreasing. In contrast, digital use has increased significantly with a dramatic increase in “hits” to library electronic databases.

Another result of the digital revolution is the allocation of library funds with a major shift away from books to electronic resources. In 1998 the library at the University of Texas in Austin spent roughly 5% percent of its annual materials budget on electronic resources and 30% on monographs. In only three years, those allocations were reversed so that in 2001 20% was spent on electronic materials and only 15% on monographs. Virtually every library in this country reports comparable trends.

New library designs, as well as renovations of older ones, call for storing books in buildings apart from the library computer centers. A major renovation at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities library eliminated the libraries book stacks and moved them to the basement or elsewhere on the campus to provide space for computer labs and a digital media center.

What will be gained and lost by the digital transformation of libraries? When I used to study in the library, every once in a while I’d take a little “study break” to wander up and down the aisles, checking the titles of the books that caught my eye. This kind of exploration will no longer be possible in the new bookless library. There will no discovery of that unknown book that you subsequently found indispensable. Thomas Benton has recently described the importance of such moments in the process of doing research.

I remember one time I was writing about Edgar Allan Poe and phrenology when I found a box of ephemera—not catalogued in any detail—that included a pamphlet for a book by an early psychologist who analyzed Poe on the basis of daguerreotypes of the poet. I quickly found the book in another area of the same library, and discovered a sequence of pages that purported to show that Poe was suffering from a disorder that affected only one hemisphere of his brain and that revealed itself in the asymmetry of his face…that accidental discovery—the centerpiece of a subsequent article—would never have been made but for the serendipity and convenience of the stacks.

How often I recall a similar experience in my own research in the library. I would go in search of a particular bound volume of a journal. Accidentally I’d pick out the wrong volume and beginning scanning the pages, only to discover another article, perhaps even more important than the one I was searching for and that, in turn, led me on a path of further inquiry that would never had occurred if I was searching for the article online. Who has not had the pleasure of discovering such an article by thumbing through the journals of their discipline?

A few months ago I went back to the library to try to locate the date of an article in The New Yorker that I had copied many years ago. Fortunately, the bound volumes of the magazine that has been published week after week since 1925 were still on the shelves in the stacks. I thought for more than a moment about the remarkable treasures contained within those pages--Capote, Cheever, Flanner, Nabokov, O’Hara, Thurber, Salinger, etc. And then I ploughed into the volume that I thought might have the article I was seeking.

I opened the cover, and began reading the Talk of the Town, the section where I was certain the little piece was located. I started reading and kept reading, page after page that I know I had read before but seemed as timely and as fresh as they first did at first reading. I didn’t find the article. It didn’t matter for I was overtaken by the pleasure of reading once again those few pages in but a single issue in one bound volume on the shelf along with countless other bound volumes of the magazine. I wonder what will become of all those priceless volumes in the new bookless library?