Physicality of a Book

A book is more that the words on the page, the story that is told, and the way it is written. A book is also possessed of sheer physicality. How heavy is it, how thick, or how many pages, what is the cover like, does the paper have a distinctive odor, is there room in the margin for comments, what is the typeface, etc?

Of course, these features, as well as other ancillary features of reading a book are relatively minor compared to the real reasons we read a book, although they cannot be entirely discounted. Recently there has been some discussion of these matters on the various Web sites I visit.

Dust Jacket
There is the matter of dust jackets. Some books have them, some books don’t. Are they necessary? I am reading two books now, neither of which has one. What purpose do they serve? Can they be met without a dust jacket? Some dedicated readers believe one of the major downsides of the new e-books is the absence of a dust jacket or a book cover.

Deckle Edge
Then there is the matter of the edge of the page—rough, smooth, or deckle edge (uncut). I remember returning from France a long time ago with a load of deckle edge books. A knife was required to cut open the pages; there was something rather special about these books, as if they were in someway more authentic than their smooth edged counterparts.

Sustainable Highlighting
For those who don’t like to write in their books, there is now a way to avoid doing so by placing a “verdant sticky” next to passage you would normally underline or highlight. Simply place one of these Japanese designed stickies next to the passage and later remove it to reuse again after you’ve added the passage to your collection.

How do you arrange the books on your bookshelf--randomly, alphabetically by author, color of cover, fiction, biography, poetry, culinary, etc? Lately, I simply add the book to whatever open space I can find. And when I search for a previously read book, I am more often than not able to find it simply by the color and design of the book cover.

Dollars and Cents
There is the cost of a book, a matter that cannot be easily dismissed these days. Shall I wait for the paperback edition? Or hold off until one comes into the library? Or planning ahead, why not buy a Kindle or a Nook, or the forthcoming iPad and start downloading them “in less than a minute” for $9.99 or, in an increasingly number of cases, for nothing.


Roth on Roth

I’ve been reading Volume IV of the always intriguing Paris Review Interviews with writers—poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, journalists and critics. In the introduction to this volume Salman Rushdie calls the set “the finest available inquiry into the how of literature.” They began over fifty years ago in the first issue of the periodical (1953) with an interview of E. M. Forster. A year later an interview was conducted with William Styron, then only 27, who was one of the Paris Review’s founders.

Volume IV includes an interview of Philip Roth conducted in 1984 when Roth, then 51, was well into his writing life, having recently published Portnoy’s Complaint and in 1983, The Anatomy Lesson. The interview begins with Roth describing his writing day and what he goes through each time he starts a new novel. He says he works almost every day, all day, morning and afternoon. “If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.”

Every writer knows that the beginning, sometimes simply the first sentence, is usually the hardest part of writing a new work. Even for Roth, a writer who has published countless works of fiction and non-fiction, it is a bit of an ordeal. He says, “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive…that has some life in it.”

This is a tale told by many writers—those first hundred pages often end up in the recycling basket. I imagine that is an impossibly difficult thing for any writer. To be utterly frank, more than once I have thought of doing the same.

But there is another far more difficult struggle that Roth goes through when he embarks on a new book. That is the struggle for a problem, a dilemma, a predicament that makes for compelling fiction. When he begins, he claims he hasn’t the slightest idea what that will be. “What matters most isn’t there at all.”

He says the central character in his novels have to be going through a major transformation or “radical displacement” in their life. And to create this kind of person, Roth says he needs to be going a little bit crazy. He comments, “…a writer has to be driven crazy to help him see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book.” Does this suggest the novels he writes are Roth’s way of getting in a little writing therapy?

Roth has always downplayed the power of literature to bring about social or personal change. He reiterates his position in the interview: “I don’t believe that, in my society, novels effect serious changes in anyone other than the handful of people who are writers, whose own novels are of course seriously affected by other novelists’ novels. I can’t see anything like that happening to the ordinary reader, nor would I expect to.”

Here he leaves unanswered the question of just how one writer’s work influences another. Writers often say they have been influenced by one writer after another, by Tolstoy or Chekhov or Fitzgerald or Hemingway. I always wonder in what way. They may have greatly admired their work, but how was that admiration translated into their own work?

Roth’s view about the effects of literature on the ordinary reader is contrary to the abundant evidence, in some cases anecdotal in others empirical, that suggest otherwise. See, for example, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, the fascinating answers given by many well-known individuals to the question “What book did you read when you were young that most influenced your life?" at The Academy of Achievement Web site, the life-changing accounts given in Jack Canfield and Gay Hendrick's volume, You’ve Got to Read This Book: 55 People Tell the Story of the Book That Changed Their Life, Gordon and Patricia Sabine’s Books That Made the Difference, the “Changing Lives Through Literature Program,” etc.

The interviewer, Hermione Lee, who has written a study of Roth’s work, then asks him, “What do novels do then for the ordinary reader?” Roth replies as if he had not earlier said they don’t. “At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity…”

Here we have Roth saying a novel does sometimes give rise of a reader’s pleasure and change the way they read, whatever he means by that. In this sense he does acknowledge the “power of the pen” to influence a person and if he is willing to admit these not insignificant effects, surely it is conceivable for a work of literature to have an even greater impact on some readers, if only to cause them to think more seriously about an issue or, in the most extreme, but far from unknown case, of changing the course of their life.


On Napping

Earlier this week a report was circulating on the Web about the benefits of napping. Since I am a serious napper, I read it with keen interest. It appears naps are good for the mind or as the BBC report headlined “Nap boosts brain learning power.” The study reported that 39 individuals who were allowed to snooze for a while after taking a “hard learning task” in the morning outperformed those who had to get through the day without a siesta.

However, we are not told how large the difference was or given much information about the process that led to the performance improvement. Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley who conducted the study said: “Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness, but, at the neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap.” This doesn’t seem to help me much.

A few years before, Dr. Martha Mednick reported similar findings in a study in which a nap that included REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep led to nearly a “40 percent improvement compared to the pre-nap performance on a word-association test. Individuals who didn’t experience REM sleep improved slightly, but their pre-and-post nap differences were modest and not statistically significant

These results also agree with my many years of napping experience. Since I rise early, a nap has become a bit of a necessity. I am totally refreshed after a short, mid-day nap. When I do really conk out for even a very short time, I actually feel much better after the nap than I did in the morning after a full night of sleep.

In a way, a mid-day nap really creates two separate days for me. There is the morning day and then the afternoon day and perhaps yet another evening day if I can manage that, something I’ve never really been able to achieve even when I needed to.

After I read the BBC report, I recall reading a delightful essay by Joseph Epstein on “The Art of Napping.” I searched without success for a copy in my files and I searched for copy on the Web, again without any luck. In doing so, I learned that the essay was included in book of Epstein’s essays, Narcissus Leaves the Pool.

I could order the book from Amazon but it would take weeks to arrive. Or I could walk a few blocks down to Powell’s to buy their one remaining copy. But it was rather too cold for me to venture out and besides the book would cost a fair amount and my bookshelf was running out of space anyway. What was I to do?

Lo and behold, Google Books came to my rescue. The complete essay is there and while I couldn’t print a copy or copy any passages, I could separately take notes while I read it, one page at a time. Doing that wasn’t so bad, at least it wasn’t reading the essay on my computer where note taking is easy. All this surprised me. Thank you Sergey and Larry. Perhaps one day it will be just as nice with some of the new e-readers that are currently making deep inroads on the reading experience.

Some well known individuals have been excellent nappers. Thomas Edison was said to be a superb napper and attributes much of his inventive energy to them. So was former President Bill Clinton, who was also known to be a voracious reader. No doubt, he also took advantage of his napping time to read for a while, as I do. Sometimes I think that is one of the reasons napping is such a treat for me

Other first-class nappers include Ronald Reagan, who seemed to be napping most of the day. Leonardo DaVinci for other much valued reasons also napped on and off during the day, but hardly slept at all at night. John D. Rockefeller also took a daily nap and for all I know may have regarded the experience as the royal road to wealth.

In his charming essay Epstein discusses the various ways napping affects his life. He recalls, “At the University of Chicago, I slept through the better part of the Italian Renaissance, or at any rate through a course in the history of art. As a teacher myself, I am now being justly repaid by having students fall asleep in my own classes.”

He also mentions some of the works of literature where it plays a lesser role. He cites Prince Bolkonsky’s comment in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, “A nap after dinner was silver, a nap before dinner golden.”


On Fragments

In the beginning was the fragment, and the fragment cast a shadow, and the shadow became the word.
—Carlos V. Reyes

Olivia Dresher, writer, publisher of Impassio Press, and director of the Life Writing Connection has also established an online magazine of fragmentary writing that publishes “…excerpts from journals, diaries and notebooks; vignettes; aphorisms; micro essays and notes; excerpts from letters; and various nontraditional short forms.” Her recent book, In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, seeks to establish fragmentary writing as an independent genre.

At her suggestion, I’ve have been reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet to find out what the experience of reading fragments is like. It has taken forever to get past the first quarter of this volume. This by no means diminishes it greatness for it is a fascinating book to read. But it is without narrative or direction or momentum and so I read it for a while and then put it down in order to get into the next gripping novel that is going to take command of my life

Olivia and I have had periodic exchanges about the nature of fragmentary writing of which the following is representative:

To Olivia: Here is my concern about texting, tweets, and facebooking, and even short fragments. These forms of expression may discourage writers from formulating reasoned, well supported, and comprehensive statements about an issue or a question. Especially among the young, although not restricted to them, learning how to do this, and it does require a lot of learning, will take a back seat to shorter forms of expression. You really have to practice, practice, practice, writing a coherent statement in order to do it well.

Without abundant opportunities for such practice, it will become a thing of the past. It will also fail to be recognized as extremely important and valuable in its own right. I admit my view is simply a concern without any empirical evidence. But we do hear a lot of anecdotal evidence these days about poor writing among the young and their inability to sustain an interest in reading for very long. No doubt there are exceptions and no doubt I overgeneralize. But still I worry. I guess I worry about many things. Worry comes to me quite naturally.

From Olivia: I hope you don't think that I see them [fragments] as a substitute for other kinds of writing. I just want to help them develop a place that can be respected, especially since they don't really have a place. I want to explore their dimensions and possibilities.

I'm very interested in form, and I like all forms of literature. I happen to, personally, be drawn to short forms (I always have been). A lot of people don't know how to appreciate or write short forms. And perhaps people, in general, have leanings to write short or long forms rather than both, and perhaps it isn't just a matter of training, practice, and education. I'm glad that there are writers of novels AND writers of haiku. I also value traditional writing AND experimental writing. Both.

In the Introduction to In Pieces Olivia writes, “One quality of fragmentary writing is the lack of a traditional beginning or end. Instead, the two are merged into a brief and concentrated middle. A fragment is a “slice of life,” a short expression or description of a thought, memory, insight, mood, perception, image, or experience.”

She notes that journals, diaries, and notebooks are forms of fragmentary writing. Clearly then there are millions of us of all ages who really are fragment writers. Much of what we write is personal, usually written in the first person, and most often they are works of non-fiction.

Olivia concludes her introduction by saying, “It is my feeling that the fragmentary form, more than any other form, gives writers the opportunity to travel as far away from the boundaries of traditional genres as they feel they must in order to express their truths.”

Here are some fragments on fragments that Olivia has composed:

Fragments: because it's the very nature of perception to be fragmentary.

Fragments: the less there is, the more that's left to the imagination.

Our contemporary lives are fragmented...the fragmented form is a reflection of the way we think and live...

A fragment doesn't explain...it just is...it can be a few words or several pages long... It can exist by itself or in a series... It can be whatever the writer wants it to be... There are no rules...


"Stupid Little Checklists"

Did you ever go to the market only to find you left your shopping list at home? Who hasn’t? Who hasn’t made far more serious mistakes? Doctors make them all the time, airline pilots do on occasion, construction engineers are known to make them too.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s latest book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, is a study of mistakes, about making and preventing them and how to do so quickly and effectively, at least how to make a start in that direction. Gawande is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, a professor at Harvard, and a MacArthur fellow. It is a mistake not to listen to him.

Early in the book he writes, “…the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.”

Consider the enormously complex situation an airline pilot faces as he sits in the cockpit getting reading to fly a massive 358,000 lb (that’s empty) Boeing 747 crammed with 545 passengers several thousand miles across the sea. At least a thousand things could go wrong causing the death of the passengers to say nothing of himself and his 33-member crew. How does he avoid making a potentially horrible mistake—a single one could be fatal--in a situation where countless things that could go wrong?

What he does is to start going over, one by one, a set of really simple checklists. There are the checklists he goes over as he inspects the outside of the plane, and those that he reviews before turning on the engines, and another set before pulling away from the gate, plus those before taxiing out to the runway, etc.

He also has a sizable notebook consisting of the “non-normal” checklists “covering every conceivable emergency situation a pilot might run into: smoke in the cockpit, different warning lights turning on, a dead radio, a copilot becoming disabled, and engine failure, to name just a few.” Gawande dramatically describes instances when a careful review of one of these checklists avoided a crash and a few when they weren’t looked at carefully that ended in a tragedy.

Gawande admits doctors don’t much like those “stupid little checklists,” that they aren’t much fun, and that physicians are often reluctant to employ them, largely because they raise doubts about their competence. Against this reluctance, he marshals one study after another to demonstrate how effective checklists are in reducing the alarming number of medical errors.

In one study the introduction of a checklist reduced infections when an intravenous line is inserted into patents in intensive care units (I.C.U.) to zero from its normal rate of 11 percent. Two years after the checklist was introduced it was estimated that it had prevented 43 infections, avoid 8 I.C.U deaths, and saved the hospital in which it was studied approximately $2 million.

Another study for the World Health Organization examined the effects of introducing checklists in surgical care at eight hospitals in both developed and undeveloped countries. “The rate of major complications for surgical patients in all eight hospitals fell by 36 percent after the introduction of the checklist. Deaths fell 47 percent. …Overall in this group of nearly 4,000 patients, 435 would have been expected to develop serious complications based on our earlier observation data. But instead just 277 did. Using the checklist had spared more than 150 people from harm—and 27 of them from death.”

The checklist may seem like a minor, relatively innocuous tool to employ in order to avoid making mistakes. The evidence that Gawande assembles from medical, construction, and aviation situations suggests otherwise. It is another mistake not to take these findings seriously.

Errors will continue to be made, accidents will occur, mental lapses are inevitable, but the use of a checklist will help overcome some of them. They are a start and only a start in confronting the fallibility of the human judgment in the face of the increasing complexity of modern life.


Isaiah Berlin

…he made readers appreciate “the charisma of the intellect. Nicholas Kristof

A few years ago I took an online course on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin offered by an Oxford University instructor. As a former philosophy student, Berlin had always interested me. I also took the course to get an idea of what online instruction was like and how it compared to taking a class in person.

The course consisted of a collection of Berlin’s writings and periodic discussions with the instructor and other students (N = 6). The readings were terrific; the online discussions were very strange, a series of rather awkward written comments, with none of the spontaneity of a classroom discussion and a maddening delay responding to a comment you or another student might have made a couple of minutes ago.

I haven’t taken another online course but I have continued to read about Isaiah Berlin and from time to time one of works. On the occasion of the recent publication of Berlin’s Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, Nicholas Kristof writes about Berlin in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books.

Berlin was born in Russia, the only child of a wealthy Jewish family that eventually migrated to England. He was educated at Oxford, during the era of analytic philosophy, and remained there for the rest of his life. I cannot begin to do justice to the range of topics he wrote and spoke about (he was uniformly regarded as an utterly charming conversationalist, witty, effervescent, scholarly)—political theory, concepts of liberty, epistemology, the history of ideas, ethical thought and values, etc. Instead, I will note a couple of ideas touched on by Kristof who befriended Berlin when he was at Oxford as a law student.

Berlin never thought of himself as a philosopher claiming that its lack of progress “led him to move away from philosophy to become a historian of ideas.” In reality, what that meant was that he was never part of the analytic philosophy tradition that conceived the discipline as primarily concerned with language and logic.

Kristof then asks, “What exactly is Berlin’s legacy in philosophy? To me, it is his emphasis on the “pluralism of values,” a concept that suggests a non-ideological pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world.”

That is also why Berlin finds a sympathetic ear with me. He was skeptical of the grand theories, the single generalization, the paramount value, arguing instead for the acceptance and tolerance of a pluralism of values, values that are often times competing and incompatible with each other.

Kristof wonderfully compares Berlin’s view to a Chinese metaphor, mozhe shitout guo he, that is roughly translated as “as fording a river by feeling for the stones with your feet.” Kristof later describes this programmatic approach to problem solving as “a matter of feeling for the next stone and finding what feels comfortable, honest and just. That entails recognizing that there may not be a single best place to ford the river, and that others may prefer different stones—yet that tolerance should not extend to the ruler who tries to cross by building a bridge of corpses.”

Berlin argued that one has to recognize the one is often wrong, that most situations are complex and that mistakes are often made in groping our way through the these complexities. What is important is to make the mistakes as quickly as possible, “without letting appreciation of nuance emasculate one’s capacity to make strong moral judgments.”

Kristof finds Berlin’s approach a philosophy for adults in today’s uncertain world and concludes that “Berlin’s world view is that we are fated to grope our way along, making constant compromises, revising priorities, living with contradictions, trying to reduce suffering where we can.”


Reading Briefs

An E-book Convert
Charlie Brooker reports he’s an e-book convert mostly because “…no one can see what you're reading. You can mourn the loss of book covers all you want, but once again I say to you: no one can see what you're reading. This is a giant leap forward, one that frees you up to read whatever you want without being judged by the person sitting opposite you on the tube. OK, so right now they'll judge you simply for using an ebook – because you will look like a showoff early-adopter techno-nob if you use one on public transport until at least some time circa 2012 – but at least they're not sneering at you for enjoying The Rats by James Herbert.”

Dictating Notable Passages
Dan Greco may be unique in the way he collect passages for his commonplace book. “When I find particularly memorable passages in the book that I'm reading I dictate those passages (and my comments relating to them) into a Microsoft Word file utilizing Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software, with a separate Microsoft Word file for each book. Then later I use word indexing software to create word searchable index of the database of all those Microsoft Word files. I can then at a later date with a word or phrase search quickly identify all of the books for which I prepared abstracts and comments pertaining to the words or subjects that I'm searching for.”

Comparing Paper and On-Line Reading
Kenton O’Hara and Abigail Sellen report a laboratory study that compares reading from paper to reading the same document on-line. “Critical differences have to do with the major advantages paper offers in supporting annotation while reading, quick navigation, and flexibility of spatial layout. These, in turn, allow readers to deepen their understanding of the text, extract a sense of its structure, create a plan for writing, cross-refer to other documents, and interleave reading and writing.” Case closed.

Hero of American Justice
In reviewing Melvin Urofsky’s Louis D, Brandeis: A Life, Anthony Lewis writes that “We see him now as a great mind, perhaps the most brilliant of all Supreme Court justices; as a crusader against oversized institutions; and as a luminously eloquent exponent of free speech and privacy—the right to be let alone.”

He concludes by quoting Dean Acheson’s remarks following Brandeis’ death in 1941: “Truth was less than truth to him unless it was expounded so that the people could understand and believe. During these years of retreat from reason, his faith in the human mind and in the will and capacity of people to understand and grasp the truth never waivered or tired….He handed on the great tradition of faith in the mind and spirit of man which is the faith of the prophets and poets, of Socrates, of Lincoln.”

Commonplace Books in the Classroom
From the very beginning commonplace books were conceived as an essential educational tool to collect and organize knowledge. Even today they can be used in guiding students to a more disciplined method of reading and as an aid in recalling more of what they have read. In her blog, Self Made Scholar Jamie Littlefield outlines a plan for creating a commonplace book in classroom settings. She cites Susan Wise Bauer on the process of using commonplace books while reading:

“The journal used for self-education should model itself after this extended type of commonplace book. It is neither an unadorned collection of facts, nor an entirely inward account of what’s going on in your heart and soul. Rather, the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader’s own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought. As you read, you should follow this three-part process: jot own specific phrases, sentences, an paragraphs as you come across them; when you’ve finished your reading, go back and write a brief summary of what you’ve learned; and then write your own reflections, questions, and thoughts.”


Discovery or Creation

As the winter drags on for month after month and the sun vanishes from view, my thoughts turn more and more to Italy and to those times when I have been basking in the warm sun of Tuscany and Umbria. So I am likely to devour any book or film about these places.

William Trevor published My House in Umbria in 1991. I don’t know how I could have missed it until I chanced upon it only a few months ago. And I followed it soon thereafter with the film version based on Trevor’s novel that is transcribed to the screen virtually unaltered and, given the magic of cinematography, is even more vivid.

After escaping a childhood of sexual abuse in England, followed by “career” as a prostitute in an African brothel, middle aged Emily Delahunty settles in a villa somewhere in the Umbrian countryside. We learn that she achieved some fame as a writer of romance novels that are difficult to distinguish from one another. And we learn she occasionally takes in tourists at her Italian residenza. Her days in Italy are familiar to every traveler:

“There are beautiful moments hidden away in corners. I have seen, near the Scala in Milan, a stout little opera singer practicing as he strolled to a café. I have seen a wedding in the cathedral at Orvieto, when the great doors were thrown wide open and the bride and groom walked out into the sunshine.”

During a train trip to Milan, a bomb goes off in the car Delahunty is traveling in. While she survives, the only other survivors are a young German, Otmar, whose lover is killed, a retired English general whose daughter and son-in-law are killed, and an eight-year old American girl, Aimee, who has lost her entire family. Emily Delahunty invites them to her home to recover.

Aimee does not speak after being traumatized by the attack and much of the story centers on her recovery. The general and Otmar undertake their own recovery by planting a garden on the on the villa’s run-down grounds. Meanwhile, Delahunty begins to weave her own, illusory stories about each of them, including Aimee’s uncle, Thomas Riversmith, who arrives to take her back to his family in America.

Trevor writes, “…we are all inside a story that is being composed as each day passes.” And Emily Delahunty’s a master at composing tales of her guests that are little else but fabrications. It is around Riversmith that Delahaunty weaves her wildest tale and whom she pathetically pursues.

Does it matter if our life differs from the stories we make up about it? Is there really a difference between what is true and what is false in these stories? These are the questions I think Trevor wishes us to consider in My House in Umbria.

Mrs. Delahunty doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the fictions she creates of her own life or those of her guests. She says, “there’s not much to me” and that she is “not a woman of the world” both of which are patently false, if we can believe Trevor’s description of her previous life.

Trevor never tells us why Delahunty engages in such fictions. She was a romance novelist, after all. Perhaps more importantly, she too may have been traumatized by the terrorist attack, as well as the experiences she had before settling in the Umbrian countryside. Her fictional inventions then may have given her the resources to overcome her own traumas and reach some peace with her past—fiction therapy in a work of imaginative fiction, if you will.

Paraphrasing a comment in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, understanding yourself may be just as much a discovery as a creation.


A Bookstore Like No Other

"Who says the traditional bookshop is dead? In this age of chain superstores and online selling, it often seems that the days of the old-style independent dealer are numbered. But one American bookseller, at least, refuses to believe that." The Independent (London), September 6, 1998

I went to Powell’s bookstore on the weekend and was floored by the number of people there. Yes, it was a rainy afternoon in Portland, Oregon. Perfectly normal day. And it was the day before Valentine’s Day but I can’t imagine that many booklovers were giving their lover a book. And they don’t sell candy at Powell’s. What they sell is an incredible number of new and used books.

There was not a free table in the room where you can get coffee and read for a while. Elsewhere the aisles were filled with serious looking people searching intently for their next acquisition. Many devoted readers were sitting on the floor, pouring over the books they had pulled from the shelf.

Upstairs a large group had gathered for a poetry reading. There were long lines at the two checkout stands, one upstairs on the main floor, the other downstairs on the lower level. It just felt really good to be there on that a dreary Saturday afternoon. And whenever I walk into Powell’s when it is as jammed as it was that day, I break out in a big smile.

Let me tell you a little about Powell’s that many claim is the world’s largest bookstore. I remember when it opened in a run-down warehouse and sold only used books, mostly beat--up paperbacks. Then one day they started to sell new books. After that, the store seem to take off. It now occupies a full block at that same location in a part of town that has become rather gentrified of late.

But still the store has that same dusty-musty warehouse feeling and is but one of several other branches—a couple of stores at the airport, a technical bookstore a down the street a ways, one in the suburbs, and two on the other side of town, one of which specializes in books for home and garden. It also has a widely visited Web site that I am sure is a major source of its revenue. And it has become a must-visit for the increasing number of travelers who come to Portland. No doubt many come primarily to stock up on books at Powell’s.

Powell’s has nine rooms on four floors of one city block. It seems immense. Each room is known by a different color—go to the green and blue rooms for literature, reference, and poetry, the gold room for mysteries and science fiction, the orange room for cooking, crafts, and gardening, the red room for young readers, games and sciences, the purple room for social sciences, history and ethnic studies, the red room for religion, travel and foreign language, and the pearl room for art, drama, music and dance.

During a period when one bookstore after another is closing and when it is reported that two bookstores close every week in England, even Powell’s has been affected by the current economic crisis. Sales have declined somewhat perhaps most notably in online store purchases and plans to expand the store by adding yet a new floor, have been abandoned. I confess, you’d never imagine that was possible after visiting last Saturday afternoon and no doubt the day after either.

It is easy to get lost in Powell’s and I have a hunch more than one booklover has ended up spending the night there after the store had closed. Indeed, as it says on the stores brochure, The City of Books, “Once you visit you won’t want to leave.”

To those of you who fear for the future of the book, take heart, and come to Powell’s any weekend afternoon. Your fears will vanish the moment you walk in the door.


Presidential Commonplace Books

On President’s Day this year, I was led to wonder about the commonplace book activity of any past or present U.S. Presidents. We know a little about the reading habits of Presidents—Obama was recently seen with a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and on another occasion clutching a copy of Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland, while Clinton was known as a voracious reader.

But do Presidents keep a record of some of the notable passages they come across in the books or periodicals they read? Perhaps they might wish to invoke them in a meeting, speech, or future writing. To my knowledge Thomas Jefferson was the only President who kept a commonplace book. In fact, as a youth, he kept two, the first devoted to matters of government and politics, the second, the earlier of the two, to literature and poetry

In addition to collecting passages, Jefferson also did a good deal of annotating at the time he wrote the passage in his commonplace book. The practice of annotating is rarely engaged in by those who keep a commonplace book and is even less likely to occur at the time the entries are made. On her commonplace book page, Lucia Knoles cites the following Jeffersonian procedure:

"He would synopsize and capture the key points of his readings and add his own reflections, recording them in a journal which he called his 'commonplace book.' One of his biographers quoted Jefferson as saying 'I was in the habit of abridging and commonplacing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject.' His tutor, James Maury, commended the practice as a means 'to reflect, and remark on, and digest what you read.”

Jefferson’s commonplace book on government also anticipates many of the ideas he later expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Stanyan says that the first kinds of Greece were elected by the free consent of the people.” “All men are, by nature, equal and free: No one has the right to any authority over another without his consent: All lawful government is founded on the consent of those, who are subject to it.”

It also includes passages that deal with policy issues we confront today. For example, here is a representative passage on gun control from Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria:

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms ... disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes ... Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

The descendents of Thomas Jefferson withheld publication of his literary commonplace book until 1928. According to Douglas Wilson, who edited a 1988 edition of the work, Jefferson maintained it from the age of about fifteen to thirty and because it is the most personal of the two, provides a rare glimpse of Jefferson’s formative years and the considerable influence of literature in the development of his personality.

The collection includes about four hundred passages that Jefferson copied by hand. Many of the entries were written by Jefferson in their original Latin, Greek, or French, and appear to be selected because of their philosophical and moral content. Wilson indicates that 339 of the entries are poetry, and 35 of the 45 authors quoted are poets. Homer, Horace, Pope, Milton, Shakespeare and Euripides are among the most frequently cited.

In noting some of the similarities between Jefferson’s and Milton’s commonplace books, Ruth Mohl suggests both men selected passages not only for their literary merit but also as “sources of inspiration and practical wisdom.” Later she concludes that like Milton’s, Jefferson’s literary commonplace book is alive with:

"Themes of courage, self-reliance, freedom, equality, the necessity of wisdom combined with strength, and faith in God…along with those on the brevity of life, death and the fatal beauty of women. In them the personality of Jefferson is strikingly revealed—as if in his own words he was recording his philosophy of life.”


May-December Romance

Lost in Translation
is far and away my favorite May-December romance written for the screen. None of the countless others come close. There is no lust in Lost in Translation. There is none of the awkwardness that usually characterizes most depictions of a couple like this. She is young, about twenty; he is almost three decades older in his fifties. In spite of this difference, they find themselves at loose ends and similar mind at the swanking Park Hyatt in Tokyo. They never talk about their age difference, although early on she says he must be going through a “mid-life crisis.” I thought it was the only false moment in the film.

The fact that these two people, at opposite ends of their lives are drawn to one another is the heart of the film. They banter, they jest, or simply gaze at one another. There is never any hint that he can’t keep up with her or that he is uncomfortable playing around with her friends. He is as young as they are. Sofia Coppola, the film’s author and director, put it this way: “But I think that, you know, that early 20s kind of 'what am I going to do with my life?' crisis I felt was similar to the guy having a mid-life crisis. I just related to his character and allowed them to both be kind of going through similar things, but from other ends of the spectrum.”

Yet I didn’t think it was necessarily a younger woman older man crisis. It is a crisis that any two individuals can have at any time in their lives. The connection between Bob and Charlotte is startling. I kept wondering what could they ever do? What kind of a relationship could they possible have? I wanted them to have a future. And yet I knew that was impossible. At the end Bob says he doesn’t want to leave. Charlotte replies, well don’t. We’ll start a jazz band. Age is so irrelevant. And yet it colors everything. She is newly married and unhappily so. He has been married 25 years and finds it is growing tedious. The emotional torpor of their separate lives is the springboard of their relationship.

I often find myself puzzled why the characters depicted in contemporary films act the way they do. They may be indecisive or ambivalent or violent or they may feel strongly about another person. But it isn’t clear why. And so they are less compelling than they might be. None of this is the case for Lost in Translation. I knew why Charlotte and Bob were there, why they were at loose ends. I understood them and thought about them for days. One night they entered my dreams.

Charlotte is luminous, totally unadorned. There is nothing racy or pretentious about her. She is quiet, inquisitive, reflective. He learns she was a philosophy major at Yale and so there is a reason for her doubts and curiosity. There is also a sweetness about her, a sweet and melancholy wistfulness. She is thoroughly irresistible. She speaks softly. She is quiet. While she doesn’t say much, when she does, it is smart, clear, and to the point. She seems years older than her age. The rhythm and tone of her words is lovely.

Bob is detached, bemused, and full of hilarious wit and innocuous nonsense. She approaches him in the bar and asks him what he’s up to. He says he is planning a prison break and asks if she is in or out. When she tells him she studied philosophy, he tells her there must be a “good buck in that racket.”

What is it that he sees in her? Is it her youth? The good times they have together? The escape from his sleeplessness and boredom? Or a trifling fling far away from home? The depth of their apparent feeling argues against those possibilities. Yet, I wonder if they would have been drawn to one another had they not been geographically removed from their spouses.

The ending is wrenching. They depart from the Park Hyatt rather clumsily. On the drive to the airport Bob sees Charlotte walking down a crowded street. He tells the driver to stop and races after her. They embrace and with tears in her eyes and maybe his too, they finally kiss for a heartbreaking moment. He whispers something to her. And then, as they must, they go their separate ways.


On Writing Well

A few years ago I enrolled in a workshop on writing memoirs and essays. It taught me a lot about what I should try to be doing when I try to write just about anything, including a memoir or essay. And what I learned really wasn’t much different than what I knew about writing peer-reviewed articles for research journals. The course was described this way:

Personal narrative shares with fiction writing the obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, and deliver a bit of wisdom. But whereas a fictional "I" can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator, in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth. How does the memoir/essayist pull from oneself the truth-speaker who alone can tell the story that needs to be told? Personal memoir becomes literature when it is shaped, shaped by a form. Ask what is the form that surrounds this memoir?

I took a great deal of notes at the workshop. Some deserve to be remembered, as well as communicated, and so I will pass along a few of the ideas I took note of during the two-week session.

A personal memoir should attempt to understand an experience that you have had, to know what it means. The understanding or your attempt to understand it becomes the form.

Try to achieve a wisdom beyond yourself, ask what is the organizing principle of the essay? It need only to apply to yourself; don't worry about it's generality.

For example, the instructor’s essay on letter writing tried to use her own experience to explain why people don't write letters any more.

In reading essays, consider the following questions:

1 Can you see the larger picture?
2 What is understood?
3 What is the essay about?
4 How to make some sense of what has happened to you?

A personal essay needs also to be going somewhere, to be in motion, to answer a question, to solve a problem, to provide some insight, to make some sense of your experience.

A mood piece must have a revelation to be an example of a personal essay. Revelation develops from a cumulative building of incident after incident until clarity or insight is apparent or the revelation emerges.

The writer should be different at the end of the essay than they were at the beginning. They are different because of the revelation. If you write about your migraines, understanding what they are and what brings them on should deepened.

The charge is to inquire more deeply or to try. To work through, in a step-by-step fashion, a self-inspection, to introspect about the situation(s) you are describing.

Page after page of feelings is not a journey. Simply exposing yourself is not literature. You need to be going somewhere and be a different person when you get there than you were when you started, even if you don't fully understand the situation.

The workshop was taught by Vivian Gornick whose work, The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative, expands upon many of workshop themes. If you find a few of the workshop notes at all instructive, I encourage you to read her volume on the difficult art of writing about personal experience.


On Writing in Books

In Library Looking Glass, David Cecil wonders if writing in books is a bad practice. This is an issue about which many readers have firm convictions. Cecil admits it is certainly the wrong thing to do if a book is a “precious object, elegantly bound and on fine expensive paper.” But when it comes to the regular books we read, there is much to be said for it. Cecil says, “It helps to make a book seem more one’s own; and, unless what is written insults its author, it is a compliment to him. It treats him as a living man, with whom one wants, as it were, to converse.”

It is startling to read how similar Cecil’s routine is to mine: “In particular when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration; but more often admiration of a special and personal kind. The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.”

However, I take two additional steps that Cecil apparently didn’t. When I have finished the book or however much I want to read, I copy each of the passages I have marked in a Word document. Following that, I insert them following those I have already collected in my Commonplace Book for the year. And at year’s end, I add the year’s collection to those I have been saving since 1988. In part, I do all this because the computer makes it so easy, maybe too easy. When Cecil started writing in his books, the computer was a distant dream, if that. Would he be saving his passages in electronic form today? My hunch is he would.

Of course, Cecil is talking about his own books, not those he obtained in the library. I am sure he would agree that making marks in a library book is inexcusable. But even worse is “defacing” your own books in a way that apparently Toby Lichtig does with abandon:

“…in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains.”…the marks and scrawls help me to recall the text—and crucially, the person I was when red it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with.”

Stephanie Hollmichel, the blogger at “So Many Books,” and a diligent keeper of a commonplace book, employs a much more civilized approach, indeed, although she marks her notable passages, it is one that doesn’t leave any marks in the book and is far more selective than the my procedure. Here is how she described her routine to me:

“When I read I keep a tin of page nibs by my side … and stick them on the pages at passages that particularly catch my attention. When I am done with the book I go back through it looking at all the passages I marked and take out the page nibs that mark passages that no longer seem all that interesting. Then I let the book sit for a day or two and go back and look at the still marked passages and make a final decision about which ones really speak to me and copy those out into my commonplace book.”

I don’t think any of these readers are going to get too excited about the iPad or any of the other e-book readers either. None of them make marking or collecting their favorite passages very straightforward. Indeed, Lichig remarks “…I intend to carry on reading as I always have: with an object I can physically alter; something I can damage with impunity. Ever-primed for action, my pen hovers restlessly just above the page.”

Mine does too, but I am certainly not going to scrawl anything across the page or leave coffee stains on it either.


Who Knows Best?

Jerome Groopman’s essay, “Health Care: Who Knows “Best”?” in the February 11th New York Review of Books isn’t going to help pass the moribund legislation before Congress. Groopman argues that there are serious problems in relying on studies of comparative effectiveness to improve the quality of care--one of the central components of both the House and Senate bills.

Obama often says, Let’s study and figure out what works and what doesn’t. And let’s encourage doctors and patients to get what works. Let’s discourage what doesn’t.

According to Groopman, it’s not quite that simple. The findings of comparative effectiveness research are always open to further testing and ultimate refutation or qualification. What is true today is often false tomorrow.

Groopman cites several examples: “Best practices” research once demonstrated that blood sugar levels should be tightly controlled in critically patients in intensive care. Later research showed that this practice was not only shown to be wrong but resulted in a high likelihood of death when compared with measures allowing a more flexible treatment and higher blood sugar.”

He points to another failure in treating hip and knee replacement by orthopedic surgeons. In this case, conforming to or deviating from the “best practice” procedures based on comparative research had no effect on the rate of complications from the operation or the outcome of the treated individuals.

Groopman claims physicians are growing increasingly dubious of efforts to standardize clinical practice based on comparative effectiveness studies.

“…clinical trials yield averages that often do not reflect the real world of individual patients, particularly those with multiple medical conditions. Nor do current findings on best practices take into account changes in an illness as it evolves over time. Tight control of blood sugar made help some diabetics, but not others.”

As our knowledge of the disease process grows, the care and treatment of patients has become overwhelming complex. So it is not surprising that the clinical application of the best practices model is fraught with difficulties. As Groopman points out, the findings fail to distinguish between those patients where it works and those where it doesn’t.

To add to this complexity, Groopman develops further the role of cognitive biases in medical decision making and the pitfalls of human reasoning in situations where an easily made error can end a person’s life. He takes special note of the following potential sources of error

• Overconfidence Bias—over estimating the importance of his own work and analytical skills

• Confirmation Bias—the tendency to ignore and discount contradictory evidence

• Focusing Illusion—basing a decision on a single patient change that is mistakenly employed in predicting the effects on the overall condition.

Groopman’s essay calls into question one of the basic tenants of Obama’s health care proposal. He concludes: “The care of patients is complex and choices about treatments involve difficult tradeoffs. That the uncertainties can be erased by mandates from experts is a misconceived panacea, a focusing illusion.”

This does not imply comparative effectiveness research should be disregard. To the contrary, it means there is much more that has to be taken into account in medical decision making-- the history and state of the individual patient, the boundary conditions of the research findings, the experience of the physician in dealing with the patient’s problem and the numerous value judgments that both the physician and the patient will want to consider.



The Game is finally over I am thinking what is the big deal after all? I am told that even the commercials this year were “horrible” and, to some, “offensive.” The Game is one of the most important days of the year, the main event until the one next year. It is surely the most widely watched television program in this country (an estimated 106 million viewers this year, about a third of the total US population) and perhaps the world, too. I suppose I should have simply relaxed, stopped grousing, and enjoyed the day for a change.

I remember when the first Super Bowl was played. It was late January in 1967 on my son’s first birthday and so before the game was the moved further and further into the year, I was always able to remember his age. We were living in a university town up the coast from Los Angeles and had invited a big crowd to our home to watch the thing, as it was blacked out L.A where the game was held that year. Several rows of folding chairs were set up before the television set and, along with an estimated sixty million other viewers, we watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs—are they still in business?

I tend to think of television events like this in terms of what they could be or what they once were. And so I recall what we used to do each Sunday afternoon in the early days of television. Then it was those remarkable programs of the Omnibus Television series. Week after week Omnibus brought drama, dance, music, science, art, history and opera to our living room for two incredible hours. The program was hosted by the always learned and witty British journalist Alistair Cooke and was shown on one of the major networks, that’s CBS, NBC, and ABC, mind you, from 1952 to 1961.

I recall the first program was a live performance, as were most of its programs, of Henry VIII. It also included a reading by William Saroyan of his short story, “The Bad Men,” and an analysis of the human digestive system. On subsequent programs Orson Wells stared in an adaptation of King Lear, Peter Ustinov performed as Samuel Johnson, William Faulkner took us on a tour of Oxford, Mississippi and James Agee wrote a five-part docudrama of the life of Abraham Lincoln with a script written by Carl Sandburg and music by Aaron Copeland. Can you believe that all of this was actually on Sunday afternoon television?

Wait, that is not all. I’ll never forget remarkable musical series that began with Leopold Stokowski and Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” that was eventually taken over by Leonard Bernstein who “single-handedly enlarged the possibilities of music analysis and performance on television.” He taught me much of what I “know” about music and he did that with his unique style of passion and excitement.

Surely that was the Golden Age of Television. Whatever happened to the spirit of enlightenment that made those programs possible? The show appeared in the early days of black and white television. Is there not an even greater audience for such programming in the new millennium?

Today I vainly search for something to watch on TV, surfing the channels, trying to find something to view for a while. The array of choices is mind-boggling--quiz shows, wrestling matches, shouting matches, sitcoms, cop shows, soap operas, crime and more crime investigations. And oh, yes, professional football games. It is hopeless.

“Fifty seven channels and nothin’s on.” Add two hundred, the result is the same. No doubt I expect too much. Omnibus was free. Cable TV had not been imagined. But would I pay for a channel to see Omnibus again? The answer should be clear and I wouldn’t mind paying a goodly sum. I can’t imagine I am the only one either.


Man's Search for Meaning

According to a survey reported in the Times a while ago, Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is among the “ten most influential books in the United States.” I read the book a few months ago for the first time and it has taken me a while to say a few words about it. Given its account of the horrors of life in the Nazi concentration camps, I guess that is perfectly understandable.

Frankl describes the impossibly hard struggle to survive under one of the most brutal conditions man has ever devised, the moment to moment struggle for warmth, food, safety, clothes, shoes and indeed for existence, including his own.

We stumbled on in the darkness over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk.

…only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

Out of this experience or perhaps because of it, Frankl developed his theory of Logotherapy built around its core assumption that finding a meaning to one’s life is man’s primary motivational force. Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts. In my notes, I wrote, “Is this what most people think? Is the search for meaning our primary concern, the dominant motivation of our life?”

According to Frankl there are three places where man can find meaning in their life—the work they do or create, the love they experience with someone else, and their response to suffering. He argues that without suffering human life cannot be complete. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

A person’s character is revealed in their response to the inevitable suffering they experience. Here he turns to his experiences in the camp for support. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

Throughout his account I kept thinking, well, he was one of the lucky ones. The odds of survival in the camp were about 1 in 28. Did those who didn’t survive think their life had meaning as they were being forcibly marched to the gas chambers?

(Whenever I think of the Holocaust, I think of the millions who perished and I wonder what would the world be like today if they had not been killed, if the Holocaust had never occurred? The question takes on meaning for me as I think about the remarkable achievements of some of those who did survive.)

I have thought a lot about Frankl’s theory of suffering and the significance he attaches to the experience. Man’s Search for Meaning has left an enduring mark on my life. It seems to have left its mark on most everyone who reads it. The other night I took to the book to a restaurant to read while I was having dinner. And once the waitress saw me reading the book, she actually sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me how much the book meant to her and how it had changed her life.

Her experience is not uncommon. In an Afterward in the edition I read, William Winslade writes:

…the darkness of despair threatened to overwhelm a young Israeli soldier who had lost both his legs in the Yom Kippur War. He was drowning in depressing and contemplating suicide. One day a friend noticed that his outlook had changed to hopeful serenity. The soldier attributed his transformation to reading Man’s Search for Meaning. When he was told about the soldier, Frankl wondered whether “there may be such a thing as autobibliotherapy—healing through reading.


The Amazing Word Wide Web

“No pleasure has any savor for me without communication. Not even a merry thought comes to my mind without my being vexed at having produced it alone without anyone to offer it to.” Montaigne

Fanfare for the Common Violist

Recalling Eric Rohmer

He Was a Town’s Person

Who Stole our Reading Time?

"People should go where they are not supposed to go, say what they are not supposed to say, and stay when they are told to leave." Howard Zinn

What’s The Best British Novel Since the War?


Obedience to Authority

It is not often that a psychological experiment is discussed in work of fiction. Stanley Milgram’s well-known experiment on obedience and disobedience is an exception. You may recall that in the guise of a study on the effect of punishment on learning, subjects were “ordered” by the experimenter to give increasingly more severe shocks for errors made by the learner in another room who cried out in pain as the shocks became more painful. (Of course, the learner never received shocks and the cries of pain were bogus, although the teacher believed shock was being delivered to the learner.) Milgram reported that sixty-five percent of the subjects in this basic procedure obeyed the experimenter and went to the very end of the thirty-point shock level generator.

Milgram's classic experiments stunned me, as they have virtually everyone who reads or hears about them. They revealed the enormous power of the social situation in controlling behavior and the extent to which an individual can be induced to harm another person. In his recent discussion of two recent novels that describe these studies, Edward Champion says, “Ordinary people have relatively few resources to resist being sucked into an activity which normal circumstances would see them shrinking from in disgust.” Moreover, they did this in a compelling laboratory situation of deep personal consequence to the participants. Finally, as they have for so many others, their relevance to the Holocaust moved me deeply. The force of these experiments has similarly affected countless students and scholars in a variety of disciplines to this day.

Champion describes two recent novels, Chip Kidd’s The Learners, and Will Lavender’s Obedience, that have concerned themselves with Milgram’s experiments. I have just started reading a third, Rebecca Goldstein’s tour-de-force, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Early in the novel, the brilliant game theorist, The Goddess of Game Theory, Lucinda Mandelbaum attends a seminar in which the long-winded speaker claims the subjects (teachers) in Milgram’s experiments fail to display the slightest degree of moral reasoning. Madelbaum takes issue with this interpretation arguing that the experiment is an instance of what is called an escalation game in game theory.

“Once a participant takes the first step, he’s already paid a certain price—he’s inflicted discomfort, and he’s feeling bad about it—but if he stops he’ll get nothing for his pain…So once he’s made his first bid, and the experimenter escalates by telling him he has to give an even stronger shock at the next mistake or he will not have completed the experiment like a good subject, he’s more than likely to escalate by complying.”

Lucinda claims that once you view the study this way, the results are completely predictable. She then proposes a test: run the experiment without requiring the subject to incrementally increase the intensity of the shock. She predicts not a single subject will deliver the highest level on the shock generator.

In fact, her interpretation does not predict the experimental results observed by Milgram and others who have replicated the study. In particular, it does not account for the fact that thirty-five percent of the subjects do not follow the experimenter’s order, who say they cannot go on any longer, and withdraw from the experiment. They are known as the disobedient subjects, the resistors, if you will.

In addition, Lucinda’s prediction is incorrect. Milgram did conduct the experiment she proposes and found that when subjects were allowed to choose the shock intensity level, there was one subject who continued to the highest level (30th shock level) and another went to the 25th level, well beyond the point at which the learner had stopped responding altogether, which should have led any normal person to wonder if he was even alive.

Milgram concludes his discussion of the study this way: “Insofar as the experiments tell us something about human nature, the revelation on how men act toward others when they are on their own is here. Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.”

I suspect Rebecca Goldstein was not aware of this study—Number 11 in a series of variations Milgram carried out on his basic design. Is a factual refutation of an explanation presented in a work of fiction relevant? In order to answer this question you might want to look at the context in which it is introduced. Everything Goldstein had earlier presented about game theory, the nature of a zero-sum game, and escalation games is factually correct. To maintain consistency with this framework then, it seems reasonable to me to continue in that vein and either propose another untested empirical explanation or let the story go forward in light of the falsification of Lucinda’s proposal


Making Sense of What Happened

At the end of her interview in the latest issue of the Paris Review, Mary Karr says, “We remember the bleakness. That’s mostly what we remember.” Isn’t that the truth, isn’t that the sad truth? And isn’t it just as sad to observe that most readers seem to be interested in those memoirs that tell the bleakest, most harrowing, most traumatic tales?

Mary Karr may be largely responsible for the autobiographical frenzy that has taken hold in this country since the late nineties. Her three memoirs, The Liars Club, Cherry, and most recently Lit have been wildly popular and have made their author a literary celebrity. She speaks in jaunty, colorful, and utterly blunt, fashion. In a way, she sounds a little like Holden Caulfield.

“By the time I wrote The Liar’s Club, it was off my fucking chest.” “Being a famous writer was a little like being a famous cocktail waitress—nobody dressed in diamonds.” “But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.”

She also exaggerates a great deal. “Books offer what TV and film often skip over—the internal and historical truths.” (Apologies to Bergman, Rohmer, Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, Antonini, Fellini, etc.) “When I went to California at seventeen, I wrote back to my sister saying, these people are boring because the weather’s so good they never had to develop an inner life.” (Apologies to T.C. Boyle, Alice Walker, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, Dave Eggers, Robert Hass, Anne Lamont, Alice Sebold, Tobias Wolff, etc.)

In contrast, throughout the interview Karr also makes some smart observations about literature and the craft of writing. Like almost all writers she says it is critically important to rewrite ruthlessly and that most present day poetry is obscure, incomprehensible and has “ceased to perform its primary function which is to move the reader.”

When asked what she considered the biggest problems with memoirs today, she replied that they were not reflective enough. Here she is in agreement with the many critics of contemporary memoirs, writers like Vivian Gornick and Cristina Nehring who argue that all too many memoirists fail to extrapolative general insights about their personal experiences from their confessional accounts.

For example, in her May 2003 article in Harpers, Nehring comments about Montaigne’s personal essays: “He could examine his own reading and loving and cheating and hesitating, and deduce brave insights about the reading, loving, cheating, and hesitating of others.” She argues forcefully that autobiography at its best is a “series of engagements with issues, not simply self-absorption.”

In The Situation and the Story, Gornick puts it this way: the objective of memoir writing “to use my own response to a circumstance or event—as a means of making some larger sense of things.” And later in expressing the importance of what she calls developing an organizing principle, Gornick suggests:

“A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to life from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Whether or not Karr’s three memoirs meet this standard of truth will have to be decided by reading them. I confess that I have yet to do so, although I do strongly agree with Nehring and Gornick on the standard of merit to apply in judging a memoir. This may account for why I rarely read a memoir and why I rarely finish those that I do begin.


In This World But Not Of It

I can’t let too much time pass before commenting on the death of J. D. Salinger. I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. Holden Caulfield spoke to me and for me and he spoke the way I did then or wanted to.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and why my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me and all the David Copperfied kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

He said things I didn’t know I wanted to stay and didn’t know how to either. He said it clearly and brilliantly. I haven’t read too many other books that I remember in this way. Before I read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t really know what “phony” meant but afterwards I saw it everywhere and now I had a word for it. And I still see it everywhere. As Charles McGrath put it in his brilliant obituary in the Times, Catcher in the Rye, struck a nerve in conveying a “sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world…”

And then I began reading Salinger’s short stores in the New Yorker—A Perfect Day for Bananafish, For Esme with Love and Squalor, Franny, and then Zooey, and Seymour. And there were more too. We couldn’t wait for the next one and it was the first thing we looked for in each new issue. I began saving those issues and for many years stashed them away in a separate box. Someone must have thrown them out one day, for they are gone now, another priceless treasure out the door.

And then, as is widely known, Salinger retreated from the public glare to a remote town in New Hampshire and stopped publishing altogether, although he was often out and about and active in the community He said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Here he speaks for me once again.

A great many writers have written eloquently of what Salinger meant to them. A. M. Homes said, “I feel as though my father has died.” David Eggers commented, “His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.”

Lillian Ross says, “His writing was his and his alone, and his way of life was only what he chose to follow. …The trouble with all of us, he believed, is that when we were young we never knew anybody who could or would tell us any of the penalties of making it in the world on the usual terms: “I don’t mean just the pretty obvious penalties, I mean the ones that are just about unnoticeable and that do really lasting damage, the kind the world doesn’t even think of as damage.”

Finally, in a glowing tribute Adam Gopnik writes, “And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with its matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm. Salinger’s voice—which illuminated and enlivened these pages for two decades—remade American writing in the fifties and sixties in a way that no one had since Hemingway.”

It is said that Salinger continue to write throughout the years he lived in New Hampshire which has apparently been preserved in many notebooks and there is some speculation that a couple of novels have been locked away in a local bank vault. Perhaps we will one day come to see some of these posthumous works. Regardless, they will do nothing to diminish the remarkable experience of reading Catcher in the Rye and those nine short stories

God, how I still love private readers,” he wrote. “It’s what we all used to be.”

Salinger said, “…he was in this world but not of it.” In commenting on Janet Malcolm’s essay on Salinger in the New York Review of Books, McGrath concludes, “That the Glasses (and by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, which said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.”



To understand yourself: Is that a discovery or a creation?”

Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

In reading the latest books by the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, I sense how much fun he is having writing them. And because he writes so well and so originally, it is just as much fun to be reading the tale he unfolds. Both are true for his latest novel, Summertime.

In this novel, like his two previous fictional memoirs, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee creates a third person narrator and employees the first person, present tense. In this way, he distances himself from himself in a way that creates a very amusing effect

In Summertime J. M Coetzee fictionalizes one John Coetzee, who we learn is dead, through a series of interviews with a researcher who conducts interviews himself with persons who knew John at one period in his life. At times this becomes utterly hilarious

When he meets with a old school friend who he recalls was not very bright but is now a very successful business man, John muses: “What does this suggest about the works of the world? What it seems most obviously to suggest is that the path that leads through Latin and algebra is not the path to success. But it may suggest something much more: that understanding things is a waste of time.”

This is clearly not J. M. Coetzee speaking. And once you know about Coetzee’s life, you realize his tale is entirely fictional. J. M. Coetzee is not dead, he is not single, or childless, and he is not a totally unlovable person. Is Coetzee here telling us how foolish it is to connect a writer’s life with his works of fiction? In Summertime he writes, “It would be very, very naïve to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.”

Among John’s friends interviewed by the researcher is a former lover, Julia, who reports he was “not fully human, like a glass ball, sexually autistic.” “Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about—isn’t it?—intimate experience….Doesn’t that strike you as odd.?”

His cousin Margo reports he was cold and berates him as a “failed runaway, failed car mechanic too, for whose failure she is at this moment having to suffer” as they are forced to spend a bitterly cold night in John’s truck which has broken down in the middle of the desert. To Adriana, a Brazilian dance teacher, he is a “wooden man,” “disembodied,” who could not dance to save his life. “How can you be a great writer, if you are just an ordinary little man??

An academic colleague says, “Something was always being held back.” Another describes him as “…the kind of man who is convinced that supreme felicity will be his if only he can acquire a French mistress who will recite Ronsard to him and play Couperin on the clavecin while simultaneously inducting into the mysteries of love, French style.” And, “He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but frankly, not a giant.”

What is Coetzee saying in these depictions? Is he confessing his own doubts about himself, his own isolation, sense of dislocation and social awkwardness, disguised as the views of former friends? Or is he suggesting you can never correctly view one’s personality through the eyes of others? What do others know of us? Don’t they usually get it wrong?

Coetzee writes, “Who can say what goes on in people’s inner life?” Can the person himself even understand what is going on in his or her own inner life? And if not, why not make up a tale about it, why not fictionalize it, and perhaps have a little fun in the process? Isn’t this what storytellers do?

“He believed our life stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.”