A Melancholy Egotism

Silence in October is the first novel Jens Christian Grondahl published in this country. It is a dreary tale of long, dense paragraphs. Nevertheless, its themes sometimes echo in my mind. I read it in two periods, separated by at least a month or two. It is the kind of book that easily lends itself to such a reading; in fact, it isn’t easy to take all that melancholy questioning without a break.

The questions Grondahl ponders are important, that is, they interest me and there are a great many of them, none of which are ever answered. The unexpected departure of the narrator’s (whose name we never learn) wife from their marriage of seventeen years is the central event around which everything else in the novel develops. And what develops is the narrator’s ruminations about the meaning of this event for his life, his marriage, his work (art historian), and the several other relationships that have come his way. That’s all but that’s a lot.

There is little story and not much action in the novel. Instead, reading Silence in October must be like what a psychotherapist of the non-directive persuasion must go through day after day listening to his patients unfold the perturbations of their emotional and mental life. The narrator does not know why his wife, Astrid, leaves or where she goes or if she will ever return. The only evidence he has are the charges she makes to their credit card which track her hotels and meals in Portugal where they had once gone together during better times.

We learn about their Marriage, although only from his perspective: “She was at once the woman I had wanted to leave and the woman I had gone to, and I was the man who had seen her alternatively as my salvation and my warden, as an unexpected, liberating lightness in my life and a burden, that chained me to the eternally grinding treadmill of days.”

We learn about the Silence that had come between them: “It became unnecessary to talk so much. After all, it was enough that we were there.” “Perhaps it didn’t matter, my being unable to think of anything to say to her. Words had never been what bound us together.” “…it occurred to me how much in life remains unspoken, in shadow.”

The narrator speaks often of the Repetition of their days together, how tedious they became, how exhausting and trivial they were. And while he spent all those years with Astrid, he realized that he never really Knew her: “I knew her as I had seen her in the thousands of days and nights we had spent together, but what of herself, as she was to herself.” “I thought about how close one can be and yet know nothing.”

And finally the narrator reflects on Solitude, the solitude when he and Astrid were together and the different kind of solitude after she leaves: “I was content in my solitude, completely absorbed in my book.” “…now I could finally be myself, far from other’s words and eyes, all their irrelevant stories and fruitless plans.”

Like the repetition in his life, these are the central themes the narrator mulls over and over throughout Silence in October. He circles around them, worries and raises questions about them from page one to page two hundred and ninety six tightly compacted, slowly paced pages. His musings are the stuff of a self-absorbed egotist who, in spite of all his introspective analysis, really doesn’t know himself, let alone anyone else.

Other than a few excursions to New York where he gathers information for his book on American painters, he never wanders far from these deliberations. He walks upon the beach with them, sits at his desk with them, confides them to no one, not even the woman he has an affair with in New York. You get the picture.

Where do the truths lie in this obsessive self-analysis? None is asserted in the novel. Perhaps, they reside only in the act of consideration itself. Yet it is only from a single perspective from which little in the way of self-knowledge can ever be expected.


E-Reading: More or Less?

I workout each day at the gym. More and more often now I see people who bring their Kindle with them and read with the thing while they are exercising. Some are simultaneously reading their e-book, listening to tunes on their iPod, and from time to time glancing up to watch the Food Channel on one of the overhead TVs. All of this makes life bearable, I suppose.

The other day, the person on the machine next to me was tinkering with their iPad. First it was YouTube, then the Times, then Pandora (ear phones in her ears) until I lost interest and picked up the pace a bit.

But not everyone has succumbed to the lure of these devices; there are still a few who I see reading a printed book as I snoop to find its title. Today I stopped to take a good look at one such reader only to discover it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should have known.

As for me, after listening to NPR for a while on my iPhone, I generally switch to the local rock station App and belt out a few tunes while I’m getting my heart beat up on the treadmill. Watching the TV depresses me unless they are showing a Red Sox game or Roger Federer playing tennis.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on how these new devices are changing reading habits. Confirming other reports I’ve heard, the article claims recent surveys indicate that people are reading more. At least that’s what the readers say they are doing

In one study 40% of digital readers reported they now read more than they did with printed books and in another study 55% of recent purchasers of Sony’s e-reader claimed they would be reading more books in the future.

The Journal article claims these findings contrast with the recent National Endowment of the Arts study reporting sharp declines in reading frequency especially among the young. However, this was a much larger, random sample investigation of individuals throughout the country. But like the more recent studies of e-book readers all of evidence in based on the self-reports of individual readers.

Are these findings believable? Can we be confident in what people report when they are interviewed by another person or fill out a questionnaire? There is good reason to believe that those who respond to these surveys overestimate the frequency of positive or highly valued behaviors such as, yes, reading.

Since the subjects are fully aware that reading is important, they are hesitant to say they aren’t doing much of it anymore. They are also aware they are in a study and pretty much know its hypothesis, so they are reluctant to say anything that might contradict it.

In turn, the experimenter may subtly frame the questions in such a way as to confirm the hypothesis or if the survey is taken in the presence of the subject, lead them to respond in a certain way. These influences are known as experimenter errors and biases, factors that must always be ruled out of any study in which they are plausible alternative accounts of the findings.

So are readers reading more on their new devices? In my mind it is still an open question. I also don’t know if they are reading as carefully, or as deeply, if you will, as they might have been doing before they began reading e-books. On the other hand, I think it is clear that e-readers are purchasing more books and, of course, downloading a great many free ones. But my hunch is they are by no means reading each and every one of them, at least from start to finish.


Reading Downtime

“I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway.” Toni Morrison

Let’s talk about reading. You read a great deal—you must read fast. I read less--I read slowly. But we both keep reading, one thing after another, day after day, month after month, books, articles, essays, papers, the Web, etc.

Isn’t this a little bit crazy? I wonder if it can be compared to eating, constant eating, one meal after another, never a pause to digest or savor. When it comes to books, isn’t it also a bit unfaithful? We read a book we cherish, we admire the author and the way the books was written, we love the story.

And yet no sooner have we finished, then we move on to the next book, the next story and writer that we love. We have become bookizers, after womanizers. Wouldn’t it be better if we stopped reading for a while, took a walk, or went to the beach to mull it all over?

Yes we write about it, blog about it but all the while we are writing about it, we are already into the next book, one after another, like spending the night with one mistress and the next night with another.

Is this what reading is about?

I thought about all this recently after finishing a long and melancholy reading of Silence in October by Jens Christian Grondahl. No sooner had I finished than I started to read Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Curse the River of Time.

I had to stop. Both Scandinavian novels are dark and gray and the days are damp, so full of turmoil and unsettling memories. I needed some sun, perhaps an Italian novel, perhaps simply a vacation from reading for a while.

Have you ever had this experience? The metaphor of digesting a rich meal is not inappropriate. You have a fine meal one night and the next morning you don’t feel like eating a thing for a week.

The other day I finished Nicole Krauss’s second novel, The History of Love. Quite frankly, all I wanted to do was come up for air. I like the way she writes so much. Maybe I like it too much. Maybe I like Nicole Krauss too much. Her first novel is Man Walks into Room. I will probably read it for the second time too.

Can one read too much, too much without a pause for reflection and review? Isn’t it like doing anything too much? After a strenuous workout, physical or otherwise, isn’t is it a good idea to rest for a while? Perhaps the Greeks were right: Everything in moderation.

Physiology professor Loren Frank put it this way in the Times yesterday, “Almost certainly downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long term memories.” He said that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

And yet some of us read two or three books at a time. How can we possibly read a really fine work of literature deeply and immerse ourselves in it when we are also reading two or three others at the same time?

I am not suggesting we read less, only that we slow down a bit. It is like the slow food movement. Take a break, a seventh inning stretch, read your book more slowly. Ruminate about the book you just finished, what does it all mean, is it important or not, review your notes if you took them, talk to your roommate about it, your cat if necessary, give it a second thought

OK. That’s enough on reading. Next time, we’ll talk about trigonometry.


Dear Colleague

“To be a writer is to have hope, and to a writer, no matter how old, hope is belief in one more work yet to be written, another book that is somehow the capstone or distillation of all that has been written before.”

This is how Yi-Fu Tuan begins the Introduction to Dear Colleague: Common and Uncommon Observations. In a way, isn’t it the hope of every person, writer or not, a hope to set off on one more path, another life, another place, one last adventure?

In Tuan’s case, as it was mine recently, he had just finished his autobiography and was searching for another work that would bring together his lifetime of observations and experiences. This is what he has done in Dear Colleague, an unusual book, something between a personal journal, set of fragments, and letter writing collection.

The volume has a rather curious origin. Remarking that “real” conversations at a research university are rare, Tuan began writing his reflections as short letters sent biweekly to his friends and colleagues. The letters were brief, most them short one or two paragraphs in length. In a way, they were not unlike present-day blogs.

In Dear Colleague Tuan has assembled a fair number of them under twenty topical headings. The topics have been arranged to follow a path that “leads from nature and human nature, through society and culture, geography (Tuan’s professional discipline at the University of Wisconsin), history, morality, and religion, to stages of life and a sense of ending.”

In the section Home, Rootedness & Place Tuan wrote, “I am reluctant to admit that mere physical environment can affect my mood. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was likewise reluctant. “Change of place” should make much difference, for the true source of happiness or misery lies in ourselves, he opined. But then he remembered who said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” It was Satan—the fallen but still defiant archangel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

One more from the section on Nature, “A human being can go blind, lose a limb or two, or a third of the brain, and yet in time adjust so well that these losses are barely missed. The same would seem to apply to external nature. Suppose for reasons of pollution and urban glare we can no longer see the stars. W.H. Auden, for one, honestly admits that he would learn to look at an empty sky and appreciate its “total dark sublime,” though this might take him a while."

Reading an unrelated set of fragments on a set of diverse topics may not be to everyone’s liking. But Tuan invites the reader to browse as you would in a bookstore. There’s nothing about his observations that command they be read in order. They can be dipped in and out of, skipping from comment to comment, independent of topic or order. He suggests his book might be enjoyed at the airport as you wait to board your flight. Given the conditions of most air travel these days, most travelers should be able to finish the book in one sitting.

Tuan also maintains an easy-to-read blog with his current and past “letters, “as well as links to his various publications. He concludes his Introduction by asking what reward is there in reading a book like Dear Colleague?

“Well,” he says, “they will get to know one person and his world better. It doesn’t sound like much, yet I think the effort worthwhile—as worthwhile as getting to know stock options, baseball, or a cat.”


Literary Memories

We forget so much. I forget so much of the books I read. I read every word, I think about the story and the ideas and then if I ask myself about a book I read five, eight or ten years, I can scarcely recall a thing. Where have my memories gone? I am continually intrigued by the question. Do I retain anything from my reading?

I asked myself that question again after reading Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love. I first read the novel in 2005 and again this year. I duly made notes and cited passages in my commonplace book after both readings. But in contrast to the first, I wrote something about the novel this year. Does that make a difference? I must remember to ask myself about Krauss’s novel five years from now.

I saved 21 passages the first time I read the book, compared to 30 when I read it this year. What does that mean? Am I reading more carefully? Has this business of collecting passages gotten the better of me? Or am I becoming more and more like Leo Gursky? Probably all three.

Eight of the passages I saved this year were also saved when I read the book initially. They were:

Put a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza

…to live in an undescribed world was too lonely

…the insoluble contradiction of being animals cursed with self-reflection, and moral beings cursed with animal instincts.

We met each other when we were young, before we knew enough about disappointment, and once we did we found we reminded each other of it.

I live alone now, which doesn’t bother me. Or maybe just a little.

You also asked what I do…Watch movies and read. Sometimes I even pretend to write, but I’m not fooling anyone. Oh, and I go to the mailbox.

He was no longer in the business of making friendships.

…the whose sense of time and history in the book is very loose.

These overlapping selections please me a bit. They reflect a certain consistency in my behavior, my identity, if you will, something I am never sure is the same from one day to the next. It may also reflect the difficulty, indeed the near impossibility of changing behavior. William Salter expressed this well:

People were always saying something had completely changed them, some experience or book or man, but if you knew how they had been before, nothing much really had changed.

I read a lot, probably too much. Book after book each year, articles and essays, the newspaper, literary journals, and more. How can one remember all of that? Surely long term memory has its limits. Thinks get jumbled up, sent to ever more remote synapses.

When I come across a passage I copied the first time around, I might be able to recognize it as something familiar. But recognition is not recall or retrieval. Still something must be left from the books we read—somewhere—a certain residue, perhaps organized in some fashion unique to each reader or just as likely randomly scattered about the great storehouse. No doubt they are also mixed up and combined in ways completely unknown to each of us--inaccessible, unavailable, irretrievable memories.

In his American Scholar essay, Reading in the Digital Age, Sven Birkerts has also grappled with this question. He puts it this way, “You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely."


The History of Love

In an interview at The New Yorker, Nicole Krauss is asked, “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?” She replies, “Its ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation.”

Precisely, I say to myself, at least for most of the books I enjoy most. There is a harmony, a union between me (reader) and text (writer). We are on the same wavelength, in the same mood. That doesn’t imply we prefer only one class of novels. If we are a brooder, we are also a joker, an escapist, a dreamer, etc. But it is that momentary alignment between where we are at the time we read the book, the story, and the way it is told.

That is the way I felt recently when I read for the second time, Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love. I’m not quite sure why I picked up the book again, although I know I am a great admirer of Krauss’s fiction. The story is a bit confusing, a novel within a novel, in which the aging, kvetching Leo Gursky, who came to New York after surviving the Holocaust, ruminates, largely in solitude, about Alma, the love of his life. Gursky had written a great novel in Poland, The History of Love that was given to a friend who later told him it was lost.

So within her novel, Krauss begins to unfold the chapters of this apparently lost novel. In fact, the novel was not lost, having been translated from its original Yiddish into Spanish by one Zvi Litvinoff who passed it off as his own work. Later, it was discovered by Alma’s father who sends it to Alma’s mother to be translated into English. Confused? At times I was. It is a complex tale.

Regardless, what is so good about this novel is the voice in which it is told. A voice of longing for lost people and lost times, Leo’s longing for Alma and for the son he never knew, as Alma was pregnant with their child when she escaped to America. Thinking Leo has been killed by the Nazis, she marries, gives birth to their child that Leo only learns about when he reads about his death in the newspaper.

Then there the voice Krauss gives to Leo, his sadness the way he qualifies much of what he says and feels. In reminiscing about Alma, he says, “…nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than you.” Elsewhere, “I live alone now, which doesn’t bother me. Or maybe just a little.” “Sometimes I even pretend to write, but I’m not fooling anyone.”

Leo is often sad and funny at the same time. “Maybe this is how I’ll go, in a fit of laughter, what could be better, laughing and crying, laughing and singing, laughing so as to forget that I am alone, that it is the end of my life…” “You also asked what I do. I read…Also I watch movies…Oh, and I go to the mailbox.”

The deeply emotional nature of this novel is also reflected in the wry, ironic truths scattered throughout the novel.

• Put a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza.
• I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely.
• The truth? What is the truth? …The truth is the thing I invented so I could live.
• At most a person has two, three good ideas in a lifetime.
• …the insoluble contradiction of being animals cursed with self reflection, and moral beings cursed with animal instincts.

What is voice? I like Philip Roth’s answer best: “I don't mean style... I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." The History of Love has a great deal of that.

Some once told me that the most enjoyable parts of the essays in a book I had written was my voice. I thought that was great, although I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I’m not sure I do now, eight years after those essays were published. I’ve thought a little about it, but not too much, and looked for it in the novels I’ve read since then. From time to time I hear a voice in Coetzees’s novels, especially Youth. And I heard it in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, but not in his latest Solar.

On the dedication page of The History of Love, Krauss placed a photo of each of her four grandparents and wrote, “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.”


Literary Chat

What is there to watch on television these days? No literary talk shows, that is for sure. So I turn to the evening news. There is a murder, followed by a calamity on the freeway, and then an ad for this and then another for that, and then several more before, it’s back to the news.

There is a war, there is a rebellion, and then there’s an ad (“Talk to your doctor.”) and then several more of them. Then there is more on the war, horrible scenes of death and destruction, and then there’s a flood and a fire and then the collapse of a bridge and the collapse of a marriage. And then more ads (“Ask your doctor.”)

But there is nothing about the poetry written that day or the symphony that excited the matinee crowd or the forthcoming literary festival in Memphis or the movie festival down the way and nothing about the new novel that is exciting the public and lo and behold, also the critics. Obviously they are not as newsworthy as a fire, flood, lost child, or serial murderer on the loose.

What is one to do? The other day I read a long article by Vanina Marsot about the literary talk shows on French TV. I was bowled over by their number and variety; I counted at least eight (8) that she described. In one way or another they are modeled after what Marsot calls “the golden age of Bernard Pivot and his legendary Apostrophes.”

There are the shorts (2)— two to five minute author interviews, or a passage from one of their books, or a short biographical sketch. Then there are the longs (6) that involve a range of formats—hour long literary discussions with a single or a group of writers or critics, some interspersed with biographical films, some with a studio audience. Others consist of more general conversations about literature or cultural issues. Debates are the format of one, another is designed for high school students who are invited to question an author.

Marsot wonders if people are watching these television shows and if so how many. No one seems to care, the ratings are irrelevant. Discussing literature is sufficient. “But maybe their very existence makes the most French of points: literature, and by extension and association, philosophy, journalism, and the arts, are important and are to maintained, period.” Please, put me on the next flight to Paris.

Still Marsot confesses she “often found her patience tried while watching the long programs, but I have to wonder how much of that is about my TV viewing has been trained by our infotainment culture, as opposed to the content of the shows themselves. Concentration is required…” We all know what has happened to that.

And then in a brilliant psychological insight she concludes, “In retrospect, I feel more fondly about my experience of watching them than I did while actually watching them, which may speak to the notion that having knowledge may be more agreeable that acquiring it.” However, I don’t think this reflects anything about the programs themselves.

Rather is it not often a feature of any human experience? Traveling can often be a tedious experience until you come back home and realize wandering around all those musty museums and steep hill towns of Italy was the best trip you ever had. Or that terrible statistics course you took from that boring old professor at 8 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a lab at 8 on Saturday is, on reflection, the most useful academic experience you ever had.

Do literary talk shows have any future in this country? At least one is about to give it a try. Known as Amateur Thursdays, its producers say it will be a five minute segment with writers that will be posted each week on its website. “We want to make a show as mesmerizing and fun as reading is to us.” I truly wish them well. But I wouldn’t bet the family jewels on its success given the recent history of Titlepage, a similar Web-based book discussion group that was dropped after only a few episodes were shown.


"Letting Go"

I know the subject I’m going to write about is grim and one of the reasons it is so grim is that until recently it is almost never talked about. One of the exceptions is Atul Gawande’s forceful essay, "Letting Go," in the August 2nd New Yorker. And in the Sunday Times Magazine a few weeks ago, Katy Butler wrote a heartbreaking account of what dementia did to her father and how the medical profession did nothing but prolong the agony of his life.

Again, in the Times last Tuesday, Roni Caryn Rabin described the dilemma faced by family members and caretakers of an Alzheimer’s patient near the end of life when faced with the choice of whether to provide nourishment or withholding it. Her daughter said, “I had this realization—wow—that no matter what we did, Mom was never going to get better. We were just prolonging the inevitable, and potentially causing more suffering."

With the rising costs and growing arsenal of medical interventions and the rapidly increasing number of elderly individuals, end-of-life care has become a critical issue. Butler reports almost a third of Americans over 85 have dementia. And Gawande writes that “Twenty-five percent of all Medicare spending is for the five percent of patients who are in their final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in the last couple of months which is of little apparent benefit.” The days of a quick catastrophic illness leading to death at a comparatively early old-age are over. Today most individuals die only “after long medical struggle with an incurable condition”

How should medical professionals respond when they can’t save your life? Almost all doctors are reluctant to come right out and tell you this. And yet all the evidence presented in the foregoing accounts indicates that medical interventions for people in the last stage of their life cause more harm and suffering than doing nothing. Gawande reports: “…terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions.”

Gawande also treats at some length the effects of hospice care for critically ill patients and says there is no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice individuals with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Moreover, in a striking statement he says,“…hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson was almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.

What is the solution to this growing, nationwide dilemma? Gawande proposes a very simple one: It is essential for individuals to have a serious discussion with their physicians about how they want to spend their final days. An Advance Directive given to your doctor may not cover all the bases. Absent a comprehensive statement, the default choice for doctors is do all they can to save their patient’s life.

Thus, end-of life discussions with physicians and family members need to be detailed and explicit. What kind of care do you want under the following conditions?

• Your mental condition deteriorates to the point that you are unable to communicate verbally or in written form in a fully coherent fashion
• Your physical health becomes uncontrollably and severely painful and you loose control of your bodily processes
• You develop an incurable disease or illness, which is clearly terminal and for which there is no known cure.

To bolster the importance of this discussion Gawande cites some impressive studies: Two-thirds of the individuals in a Coping with Cancer project who did NOT have this kind of discussion with their doctors suffered far more than the one-third who did. He cites the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin that has unusually low end-of-life hospital costs and attributes this to the fact that 85% have had end-of-life discussions with their physicians.

He concludes there are no rules for conducting a discussion with people about their terminal illness wishes except trying to determine what is most important to them. These “Breakpoint Discussions” as puts it are “… the conversation that we all need to have when the chemotherapy stops working, when we start needing oxygen at home, when we face high risk surgery, when the liver failure keeps progression, when we become unable to dress ourselves.”


We'll Never See Those Days Again

A friend and I have been bemoaning the changing character of the once-great New Yorker. Those of us who were first drawn to the magazine when William Shawn was editor expect a different magazine than the current editor David Remnick puts together. In the old days, it was primarily an intellectual periodical that focused principally on literature. No more. Now it is politics, fashion, crime, the media, food, and celebrities.

All you have to do is pick up the latest issue to see what has happened to the magazine. This week, for example, there is profile of a rap star legend, a piece by David Sedaris whose humor escapes me, an essay on the Senate, which may be worth reading given the way it has paralyzed the nation, and one about video games that I will probably skip. Indeed, sometimes I find myself skimming the magazine and finishing it in five minutes. That was inconceivable in the old days when it was more like five hours before I had read everything.

Or compare the film reviews of David Denby and Anthony Lane with those of Pauline Kael. The thoughtful and sometimes clever Denby and the always-pretentious Lane are lucky if they get a half page to review a movie. Kael sometimes filled up a quarter or more of the issue when she wrote and if you were lucky enough to read her essays, you came away thinking you had really learned something. There you have it.

As Shirley Hazzard wrote a few years ago, “The atmosphere of The New Yorker, in those years, can never come again. It was a place of temperamental people, yet of eccentric goodwill, civility, amusement, liveliness. Yes, of generosity. Of literature and of fun. Any issue might contain a story by Nabokov or Pritchett or Frank O’Connor; a poem or a review by Auden; an essay by Edmund Wilson or Lewis Mumford. There was Cheever. There was on occasion, Salinger. There was Maxwell. There was the infant Updike. There was the gentle Joe Mitchell, and the ebullient Dwight Macdonald. William Shawn held it together, and Maxwell presided (although no one had a “title”) over the fiction. No one acted presidential.”

Of course, the magazine Shawn created would be bankrupt today after a single issue. I don’t think it ever made any money, but that never seemed quite so important. What was important was maintaining a tradition of literary excellence--period. While we’ll never see those days again, to a certain extent they are carried on at The New Yorker Book Bench, where a young and clever and sometimes very funny group of writers blog about the literary world. They blog each weekday, with an average of five interesting posts, including photos, videos, author interviews and an online book group that reads a different book each month. It is worth bookmarking.

In reading the magazine each week, I used to feel part of the community of other readers who value polished writing and serious commentary. The symbolic nature of this community made it no less real. In The World Through a Monocle, Mary Corey captured this bond quite well: "Some felt a profound kinship with the magazine because it spoke for them, giving a public voice to their own private intelligencies intelligences.”

One of the respondents to a recent survey of dedicated New Yorker readers conducted by Ben Yogoda recalled an experience she had while serving as a nurse during World War II in a remote section of northern Italy. She reported being asked by a wounded soldier, "If you could have anything right now, what would it be?" In an instant she replied:, "An issue of The New Yorker magazine.," Whereupon the two--wounded soldier, and American nurse, in that far off time and place--began reminiscing about their favorite New Yorker cartoons and writers. I am not sure any more if I would respond the same way.

My friend, a long-time devoted reader of The New Yorker reports: I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse a couple of months ago: They sent me an issue warning me in a wrapping that this was it. And it was one of the worst issues I've seen. That was, indeed, the problem. Too often, I would pick up the magazine in the mailbox at the end of the drive, leaf through it on the walk back to the house, and by the time I got inside, I would simply pitch it into the trash.


First We Read, Then We Write

…life is wasted in the necessary preparation of finding what is the true way, and we die just as we enter it. Emerson

I’ve been mulling over Robert Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write, his recent book on Emerson’s ideas on reading and writing about the books you’ve read. I read the book almost entirely because of its title, as reading and writing seem inextricably bound to me. When I read a book, I want to talk with someone about it, and if someone isn’t around I’ll try to write something, all the while mumbling to myself a word or two in order to make sense of it all.

However, the Richardson volume has only a few words about the relationship between reading and writing per se. One of them was Emerson’s belief that “…creative reading was at last inseparable for him from creative writing. But reading was just the means. The end—the purpose—was writing.”

I learned that Emerson apparently retained “nothing of all he read save that which seemed to him an echo or prophecy of his own state.” This has long been true for me although I’ve been hesitant to admit it, given the lofty standards of contemporary literary commentary. Now I know I’m in good company so it’s OK after all.

Emerson declared “The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.” And anticipating a remark Hemingway often made, Emerson reminds aspiring writers “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.”

From time to time I have compared the passages I’ve collected from a book with those of other readers and I’m always struck by how little overlap there is. Had I read Emerson more carefully, I would not be so surprised. “You have seen a sklilful man reading Plutarch. Well, that author is a thousand things to a thousand persons. Take that book into your own two hands and read your eyes out. You will never find there what the other finds.”

It was music to my ears to read Richardson’s discussion of Emerson’s advice on keeping a commonplace book. “What Emerson kept, and what he recommended enthusiastically to others, were what used to be called commonplace books, bland bound volumes in which one writes down vivid images, great descriptions, striking turns of phrase, ideas, high points from one’s life and reading—things one wants to remember and hold on to.”

It also reminded me of one my central concerns about the proliferation of e-book readers. While I am aware it is technically possible to highlight and save passages, as well as write with these devices, it is in fact a rather cumbersome task.

And when I see individuals reading with them, as I do more and more often these days, I have never observed a single one doing any of these things. I admit the same is true for the individuals I see reading printed books. I am fairly certain Emerson would feel quite disappointed each time he observed someone reading without a pen in hand.

Emerson referred to his commonplace books as his journals and considered them to be his savings bank. Some people save money, others save words and for Emerson, as for many commonplacers, these words draw every bit as much interest as their dollars do.

It was also music to my ears to read Patrick Kurp’s blog on commonplace books the other day. He begins with a passage by Brian Vickers that could very well have been written by Emerson, himself, “All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one’s own writing.”

Kurp also writes a bit the relationship of blogs to commonplace books and how they are in certain respects written in the manner of a cento or collage. The interested reader might want to read more at Anecdotal Evidence.