Go and Study

A mocker asked the great and gentle rabbi Hillel to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, to which Hillel replied: “That’s easy. What you wouldn’t have done to you, don’t do to others. As for the rest, go and study.”
Rebecca Goldstein The Mind Body Problem

A friend recently wrote to me about the ambivalence he feels toward being in graduate school now. In reply I had all too casually said that he was there “…to lay the foundation for a life of learning.” Given his current dilemma, I realize now that was rather thoughtless, although he said it had “deeply moved” him.

Graduate student uncertainty about the path they have started down is much more common than it was in my day. When I entered graduate school, there were very considerable demands for university and college professors in all disciplines. This is clearly no longer the case. And for various other reasons the university as I came to know it is no longer quite so attractive to young students or, for that matter, to their professors either.

My friend confesses he is more “moved by pressing goals.” These are far removed from the academic fray. “……there are aspects of the business that intrigue me: the fast pace, the money making, sharp dressing… Mostly the pace. Scholarly research is too slow-paced. And then, after it’s published, who’ll read it? It takes too long to become an established researcher, widely quoted and respected. And teaching and university bureaucracy are so problematic. Knowing all of these shortcomings, present in every industry, will not help me to excel within this “industry.”

I understand his predicament and deeply sympathetic with it. What can I say? We approached this kind of choice point at different times and at different angles. I know my counsel is unrealistic and yet I can’t imagine suggesting he give up on the academic world so soon after beginning his graduate studies.

Our exchange reminded me of a recent remembrance by Roger Scruton of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s memorable lecture The Idea of a University that he refers to as "…surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life."

Later Scruton continues, … It was not simply a repository of knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality.

Yes, that’s the way I always thought of life in the academy. I still do even though I am no longer formally a part of it.

Is there a place today for a life of learning? I know it is an increasingly narrow one. But still its appeal remains as strong for me today as it was the first day I became a freshman in college. I quote Keith Thomas in his Fifth British Academy Lecture, November 20, 2001.

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.


500 Million Members

Facebook: You can’t avoid it. Zuckerberg here, Zuckerberg there, the IPO (Will he or won’t he?), the movie, the profile in the New Yorker, the book (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) and no doubt another book or two in the works.

What is it all about? I am on Facebook. I don’t know why. No one ever seeks my friendship. I rarely seek the friendship of anyone or say very little about myself. Most of it is fabricated anyway. I even have my face there. That is a mistake. No wonder no one wants to be my friend

Once I tried to befriend a person, if that is what you call it I found on the site. I did so only because she had written to me about a book I wrote: “Your book was an inspiration.”

I never received a reply. That seemed odd. She is no longer a public presence there. Already we have had our first argument.

Why would anyone want to talk, if that is what you call it, on this site? How can you make these exchanges so public? The discourse is moronic anyway. Why not sent an e-mail, write a letter, or make a telephone call? If you’re not good for more than a word or two, text the person.

Zuckerberg is reported to be a strange one in the New Yorker (9/20/10) profile by Jose Vargas. “…a wary and private person…. mixture of shy and cocky… he can come off as flip and condescending … backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive.” Yes, perhaps a bit disdainful, autocratic, secretive, but extraordinarily successful. Is that what it takes?

Zuckerberg’s story is a familiar one, especially if you have read Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s account of the reasons some individuals become enormously successful in their field. According to Vargas, like so many digital wizards, Zuckerberg was a computer prodigy as a kid, played computer games, and early on began to tinker with coding. When he was about eleven, his parents hired a computer tutor and not long after Zuckerberg began taking evening computer courses at a nearby college.

Soon after he became a freshman at Harvard, he built a CourseMatch, a program that enabled students to decide which classes to take and another, Facemash, that Vargas characterizes as a kind of “sexual-playoff system” that was promptly shutdown by the administration.

And then as Vargas describes it, “Afterward , three upperclassmen …approached Zuckerberg for assistance with a site that they had been working on, called Harvard Connection.” Apparently Zuckerberg worked with them a while “but he soon abandoned their project in order to build his own site, which he eventually labeled Facebook.” The site, originally a social network for Harvard students, soon thereafter expanded to other colleges, became an instant hit, whereupon Zukerberg dropped out of Harvard (as Gates did and as Jobs did from Reed) to run it. The rest is well known.

I am less interested in Zuckerberg the person or the current controversies over Facebook’s privacy policies than I am in the conditions that led him to formulate the Facebook concept, create its software, and then apply it with such success to the Web. In Outliers Gladwell formulates a five-factor theory of success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck.

Obviously Zukerberg had a great deal of natural savvy about computers and knack for coding. Equally clear, he spent hours and hours, perhaps Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, developing his computer software skills. He parents gave him every opportunity, hired a tutor and provided a first-rate education.

As for timing, one really never can be sure when an idea will take hold but by the time Facebook was launched, the Web had become a very fertile ground for match making and, as a friend put it to me recently, "mischief-making." And then luck is such a vague term. Of course, Zuckerberg was lucky. No one becomes an extraordinarily successful person without a good deal of luck. So that factor, along with timing, is of little value in predicting success and even less useful in fostering it.

Still there is the lingering unknown of whether or not the idea and execution of Facebook was based (“stolen”) upon the work of the upperclassmen who had approached Zuckerberg for assistance with their own highly similar site. Two of the three are appealing for more than the previous sixty-five million dollar settlement with Facebook and the case is currently under review.

However, the settlement was a financial one that leaves unanswered the question of who was really responsible for the Facebook concept. I suppose one can never really know these things anyway and in the words of a young German writer I cited in an earlier post on where ideas come from, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”


Can't Remember What's in Books

The effect of the reading experience was the central issue that drew me to the field of literature. Reading a book is like any other experience. You are a different person afterwards than you were before. But in what way? And to what degree? Further, what is the cumulative impact of reading book after book, essay after essay, year after year?

During all the time I was teaching and doing research in psychology, I never encountered anyone or any systematic program of research in the discipline that was investigating these questions. This surprised me and continues to do so. Given all the reading of literary fiction and non-fiction we do, one has to wonder if and how we are influenced by it.

These questions were considered by James Collins in his essay, The Plot Escapes Me, in the Times Book Review last Sunday (9/19/10). Collins says he finds it impossible to remember much of anything about the books he’s read. And then he wonders what is the point of reading after all, if you can’t remember what’s in them?

Yes, he answers, we read for pleasure and sometimes to learn something new. But then he confesses, “When we read a serious book, we want to learn something, we want it to change us, and it hardly seems for that to happen if its fugitive content passes through us like light through glass.”

Surely, he speculates, reading a book must have affected his “brain” in terms of the ways he thinks and “…they must have left deposits of information…that continues to affect me even if I can’t detect it. Mustn’t they have?”

To find out he calls Professor Maryanne Wolf, the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” to see if she might shed some light on his puzzlement. She was the right person to call, especially if he wanted to find out what current neurological thinking is on these matters. If he had called me, he might have written an entirely different essay, one that would never have appeared in the Times Book Review.

Wolf gives him the answer he wants, the one he more or less answered himself the way he framed the questions. Wolf claims, Collins is a different person for having read all the books he tells her about.

“There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

All this is very encouraging of course both to Collins and all the rest of us dedicated readers. Yet, it still seems rather fanciful to me. Let us just say that all the books I’ve read by Ian McEwan changed my brain in some way. And let us also agree that a neurophysiologist can measure all the ups and down of my neurons while I was reading them, that they are most active in the left ventral occipito-temporal cortex. But knowing all that still leaves me in the dark about how these brain processes get translated into my beliefs and actions. Doesn’t it?

The same questions hold for all the Philip Roth books I’ve read or that single masterpiece Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. Yes, my brain was hoping all over the place when I read those books and I suppose it was changed in some fashion by those experiences. But after saying that, I remain stranded at the choice point, having no clear idea how my now-changed-brain influences the decision I make, the attitude I hold, or the course of action I take.

Yes, hearing Wolf’s views and even reading her highly regarded book might make some degree of intuitive sense. But in terms of really getting a handle on the concrete effects of reading literature, I remain as baffled as ever.

Quite frankly, in my mind Wolf’s account isn’t any more enlightening than the one Lorrie Moore, a writer not a neuroscientist, mind you, made several years ago: "Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort--good food or junk food--and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells."


On Literary Journals

I’ve been traveling lately without a permanent address and so I’ve not been receiving any mail. All that ended a few days ago when a big packet of literature was delivered overnight from home base. Many thanks to the gang at home. It was like Christmas

Inside the packet I found the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Paris Review, American Scholar and Lapham’s Quarterly. I haven’t received a gift like this since the time I found an electric train under the Christmas tree.

It isn’t necessary to talk about politics, the recession, environmental disasters or the latest war, although trustworthy commentary on these topics is not precluded, and you don’t have to have a Style Issue, a Food Issue, a Media Issue or a Shopping Issue to attract readers of poetry, fiction, interviews, and essays as the Paris Review has time and time again done since its founding fifty-seven years ago.

The latest issue is an example: there’s a superb short story, Virgin, by April Ayers Lawson—“Do you really think people change, or just seem to change?” two contemporary author interviews, Norman Rush—“It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live….As I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m struggling against the “obligation” to solace.” and Michel Houellebecq—“I wake up during the night around one A.M. I write half-awake in a semi-conscious state. Progressively, as I drink coffee, I become more conscious. And I write until I’m sick of it.”

The same quality holds for the consistently outstanding New York Review of Books with its usual range of critical reviews and analyses of the arts and sciences broadly speaking. The latest issue has an unsettling essay by Michael Tomasky on the cloture rule and filibustering in the Senate. He writes:

“…obstructionism is empirically worse today than ever, or at least since 1917, when the current “cloture” system was first adopted.” “But typically filibusters have put off for decades actions the nation should have taken years before—civil rights, notably, including anti-lynching laws.” “The truth is that no institution of American government is more responsible for our inability to address pressing national problems than the Senate, and no institution is in greater need of reform.”

Tomasky concludes his review with several current reform proposals. They include Rewriting the cloture rule, Rule 22, itself. In addition the Senate, unlike the House, does not declare itself a new body upon reconvening every odd-year in January; if it adopted the House procedure, it would be able to change its rules by a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote.

The current issue also includes another unsettling review by Arnold Relman concerning the recently passed Health Care Legislation. According to his analysis the complex bill will not control the costs of medical care in this country, rather it will only increase, not lessen federal budget problems.

He says the reason for this is the legislation’s “failure to change our current dependence on private, for-profit insurance plans…By mandating and subsidizing the purchase of private insurance for almost all those not eligible for …Medicare or Medicaid the legislation has created a virtual monopoly for the private insurance industry.”

There is much more--(Krugman & Wells on the economic slump, a review of Franzen’s Freedom, the Warburg Library, etc.) I’ve not said a word about the very fine issue of The American Scholar, with an amusing short story, By Appointment Only, by Louis Begley or the Fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly devoted to The City, both of which were also in my packet of mail.

My point has been to give a few examples of the riches to be found in the so-called “little magazines” and periodicals that are published in this country. In a letter to readers of the latest issue of the Paris Review its new editor, Lorin Stein, wonders if a printed literary journal can still survive in the age of the Internet. The quality of those I recently received makes it clear to me that their future is guaranteed. There will always be individuals who will want to read good, intelligent writing. Perhaps not many, but there were never very many anyway. Yet, they have made all the difference.


Motherhood is Hell

“If everyone would read this book, the propagation of the human race would virtually cease…”

In last week’s Times Magazine (9/12/10) Lisa Belkin asks, “Is child-rearing the new self-actualization?” Her question stems from a recent article by the evolutionary psychologist David Kendrick that redefined Abraham Maslow’s original theory of self-actualization in terms of “attracting a mate and ultimately, parenting children.”

Rachel Cusk, the well known and much admired by this reader English writer, would surely object, and do so strongly, to this dubious claim. Cusk is the mother of two children and has recently written about her experience of motherhood in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.

The book is a bold expression, a powerful one that angered many readers for its brutally honest account of motherhood. The nearly unanimous outcry after it was published confused Cusk for, as she commented, “I was only being honest.”

Cusk is not the first writer to write critically about the experience of motherhood. But she may be the first to describe its adversities with such vitality and intensity--a domestic struggle, confinement, sleeplessness, confusion, guilt mixed with love, servitude mixed with compassion, a prison, boot-camp, never ending torment.

‘Motherhood, for me, was a sort of compound fenced off from the rest of the world. I was forever plotting my escape from it, when I found myself pregnant again when Albertine was six months old, I greeted my old cell with the cheerless acceptance of a convict intercepted at large.”

In A Life’s Work, Cusk has tried to convey what she thought and felt about the experience of having a child. Although she might now regret publishing the book, she must have hoped that other people would identify with her account and know that they were not the only ones to react the way she did.

For Cusk caring for her child was “isolating, frequently boring, relentless, demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership in the adult world.”

Throughout the book she draws upon works of literary fiction to corroborate her experiences. She cites Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth and asks what a woman is if she is not a mother or a wife either.

“The baby is the symbol not just of Lily’s exclusion from the human life-cycle, nor of the vulnerability, the helplessness that marks her life and her life’s end: it is also the vision of her squandered femininity…”

And in a separate chapter on Madame Bovary, she reflects on how confusing it is for a mother to make sense of being “supremely powerful and powerless at the same time.”

Her relationship with her husband comes under pressure. “…after a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation with each other.” Clearly news about the how closely fathers are now involved in child rearing had yet to arrive in the British Isles.

And yet they were in this “crime” together. “When evening comes, I prepare the bottle. Her father is to give it to her, for we are advised that this treachery is best committed not by the traitor herself but by a hired assassin.”

I have always found much to admire in the works of Rachel Cusk. And while I will never be a mother, I heard clearly what she was saying in this book. At one point she speaks of “…the death of freedom, its untimely murder by the state of parenthood…” Note: parenthood, not motherhood.

And later “…the hardship of parenthood is so unrelievedly shock….At its worst moments parenthood does indeed resemble hell, in the sense that its torments are never ending.”

OK, you get the picture. While very few parents are likely to admit they experience anything close to this degree of hardship in raising their children, I think there is enough truth in Cusk’s account will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a parent.


"Hunger to capture another life, to understand another life."

In 1978 John Updike gave a lengthy interview in response to the questions of two professors of English while he was attending a writers conference in Croatia. He discussed his writing process (semi-fixed, every day but Sunday, a good deal of rewriting), favorite writers ((Thurber, Proust, Calvino, Nabokov) and the excessive focus of American fiction on infidelity and the breakdown of marriage (Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina are also novels of adultery and marital estrangement).

When asked about the many predictions that the era of the novel is over, Updike responded with the bold claim that the novel is the “ultimate vessel for truth telling and artistic expression.” Bold, yes, but also a view that was responsible for the turn I took from psychology to literature.

Psychologists seek to establish very general laws of human thought and action. However, I never understood how evidence derived by averaging the scores of a group of individuals could serve as the foundation for a science of individual behavior. Laws based on such aggregate data tell us very little about specific individuals and serve only to obscure crucial features of human variability and uniqueness. Literature points the spotlight on them.

Further, the many exceptions to those general laws severely limits their generality. Thus, it is impossible to say with much confidence that they hold for a particular individual at a particular time and place. I have come to believe that psychology will always have to be content with this sort of limitation. Laws based on aggregate data hold for some people, some of the time, but one never can be sure on any given occasion if they apply to a particular individual in the situation at hand.

This conclusion is not unlike one often voiced in judicial proceedings, where the legal standing of psychological research is also called into question. It took me a while to understand why courts were so hesitant to admit social science evidence, let alone take it seriously in adjudicating cases. Yet legal cases are decided on an individual basis and so, even when the weight of evidence clearly supports the relevant social science generalization, the courts still require "proof" that it applies in the case being decided.

When judges ask psychologists to link the general principle to the specific case, it is difficult, if not impossible for them to do so with certainty. But that is what the law requires. Psychologists can provide relevant case knowledge and guidance, but the information they present is rarely, if ever, decisive in judicial decision-making.

In his essay Medicine and Literature, Robert Coles puts the matter eloquently. "I am constantly impressed with mystery, and maybe even feel that there are certain things than cannot be understood or clarified through generalizations, that resolve themselves into matters of individuality, and again, are part of the mystery of the world that one celebrates as a writer, rather than tries to solve and undo as a social scientist…..As physicians we also know, or ought to know, that each person is different, each patient reacts in his or her special way to any illness, and indeed to life itself. A sense of complexity of human affairs, a respect for human particularity, ...these are the stuff of the humanities at their best …"

During all the time I was primarily engaged in psychology, I never stopped reading literature, mostly contemporary fiction. I did not have the time to read widely, but the literature I did read always told me things about myself and others that I never heard expressed in psychology. With rare exceptions, I rarely saw individuals in psychology as clearly or as deeply as I did in the novels and short stores I read.

Literary truths hold for particular individuals and situations. They make no claims beyond that. They do not require testing or verification or large sample statistical analysis. Their veracity cannot be doubted, they are without exception true for the individual or situation at that time and place, and as Coles suggests, they are bound to be different for each person and situation.

This is what I take Updike means when he speaks of the novel as the “ultimate vessel” for truth telling. Writers may not be overly concerned with expressing literary truths but it is a natural consequence of the work they do. Nor is the excellence of their work judged in terms of the literary truths on its pages.

Instead, what Updike does in his stories is “examine the details, the texture of time, the texture of a little experience in such a way as to make it yield all-new meaning, like turning a sock inside out or something.”


"A Variety of Impersonations"

For all the seeming self-exposure of the novels, he was a great defender of his solitude, not because he particularly liked it but because swarming emotional anarchy and self-exposure were possible for him only in isolation.

I think of Proust and the several years he rarely left his cork-lined apartment working on his masterpiece. I think of Salinger secluded at his home in the forested hillside of New Hampshire, Salinger who after the enormous success of Catcher in the Rye, rarely broke his silence. After To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee did much the same, refusing interviews and public appearances. The creative life is usually solitary and it is in that solitude that a writer finds his story. Perhaps it also creates a strong desire to be heard. Every writer says much the same. Martha Gelhorn put it well, “I always live alone to work, cannot do it otherwise except as total immersion.”

In a way brothers probably know each other better than they ever know anyone else.

One summer my brother and I met at a cafe in the beautiful town of Lucca in Tuscany. The warm afternoon was drawing to a close. The buildings surrounding the piazza glowed in that late afternoon Tuscan light. And he started to tell me about what he saw. He saw things I did not even notice until he pointed them out. It was like that with each building. The object; its meaning; historical importance and why it was placed there and not somewhere else. It was dazzling. He did know a great deal. But above all he wanted to tell me about it. I had never heard him so spontaneously outgoing to me or interested in what he was talking about. It turned out to be our last day together. We never had a better one.

…what matters isn’t what made you do it but what it is you do.

I listen to people tell me what they intend to do and what their attitudes and beliefs are or I read the same things in their writings and I say to myself this is really of no importance. What is important is how they translate their beliefs and attitudes into behavior, what they do when push comes to shove in real time. Many years of experience and a fair amount of research have taught me that the finest of intentions often fall by the wayside under conditions of even the most minimal pressure.

There is no you, Maria, any more than there’s a me. There is only this way that we have established over the months of performing together, and what it is congruent with isn’t “ourselves” but past performances—we’re has-beens at heart, routinely trotting out the old, old, act….It’s all impersonation—in the absence of a self, one impersonates selves, and after a while impersonates best the self that best gets one through.

Does it make any sense to speak of a self, an identity that is the same today as it was 30 or 40 years ago, a self that lies hidden behind most of the actions that constitute our daily life? Or are we, as the author of the passage above suggests, little else but performances of who we imagine our self to be or might wish to be?

On this account the notion of a self as a distinctive identity is a myth. Instead we are impersonators like actors on the stage with a range of parts we perform to meet the demands of the situation or the image that we think others have of us.

I have been searching unsuccessfully for my self for years. Instead, what I find are the various behaviors I enact over time, a set of behaviors that has remained consistent for most of my life now. If this is what is meant by “self,” then I admit the search has been successful after all.

The quoted passages above are from Philip Roth’s novel, The Counterlife. The novel depicts the various lives two brothers lived or might have lived--one is never quite sure. It is an imaginative, forceful, confrontational novel that is Roth at his best.

I might note that Roth, an intensely private man, also lives in virtual solitude at his home in Connecticut. He works from early morning until the end of the day, every day, in his studio back in the trees away from the house. He says he cannot do otherwise, that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he couldn’t write every day.

My responses reflect the way I read a novel or most any book for that matter. I read a passage, come to a halt for one reason or another, place a mark in the margin, and then continue mulling it over for a while. From time to time I return to the passage and others from a really excellent book after I have entered all the marked passages in my Commonplace Book. And every so often these passages serve as the basis for something I write.


Notes on Reading

At Barnes and Noble last night I was given an extended demonstration of what it’s like to read The New Yorker on their e-reader, The Nook. The magazine arrives so late in the week at my home that I usually head out to buy a second copy on the newsstand the day after it hits the streets in New York. To avoid this unnecessary extravagance, I have wondered what it would be like to read the magazine moments after its publication on an e-reader at a fraction of the cost of the printed version(s).

And what I learned is that electronic version of The New Yorker is nothing like the edition that has been coming my way in the mail for ages. In the version of the magazine I read or tried to read on The Nook there are no ads, no little sidebars, no color photos, a fraction of the cartoons and unless you’re reading the both the print and the electronic version simultaneously, you have no idea what else is missing and that includes some of the articles, essays and reviews. Frankly, I thought the e-reader version of the magazine was a fraud.

While weekly edition The New Yorker is also available on the Web, much of the print version is also missing and a good many of the essays are blocked and can only be read by subscribers to the electronic edition of the magazine which is sent each week to subscribers via e-mail. I confess I’ve tried to read this digital version and I found it to be impossible.

I’ve also been worrying a great deal lately about what is happening to practice of reading on these devices. It is claimed that you can “read” countless books and periodicals with them, a large number for free. But what does that mean, what is meant by “reading” anyway? Is it simply from moving from one sentence to another, page after page with a flip of a thumb? Is that all that is meant by reading?

For me reading has always meant much more. It is reading carefully and slowly and sometimes deeply. It is marking passages, making notes, flipping back and forth between pages, and when you’re all done keeping a record of the best of what you’ve read in a notebook or as it’s usually referred to a commonplace book. Doing all of this with an e-reader is not anything I’ve ever observed anyone doing. Nor have I heard anyone tell me this is the way they read with the Nook, Kindle, or iPad. Of course this might be said of most readers of printed books too.

Recently a few blogs have made mention of the commonplace book tradition. Amanda at Desert Book Chick discusses the history of how she uses her commonplace book and over at Kittling: Books, Cathy does much the same in her post There's Nothing Common About Commonplace books. I was amused to read some of the comments to these postings.

I’ve been considering something of the sort for quite some time (didn’t know that there is actually a name for it) but I have this problem with the fact that I need to have it someplace close in order to use it, otherwise I don’t feel like getting up to retrieve anything while I’m immersed in a book. But I do actually need one because at the moment, my thoughts are scattered on post-its everywhere and that really won’t do.

Wow – i have never heard of these – what a simply WONDERFUL idea!!!

I have never heard about commonplace books either. I kept a diary when I was quite young, though, and looking back at that stage, I think it helped me finding a writing voice.

I wish I had kept something like that years ago - it would be wonderful to look at now to see how (or if) I've grown.

And then there is the matter of the future of the printed book, a future that many predict with be short. I realize printed books are expensive to produce and publishers lose a good deal of money on most of them. On possible solution to this problem was recently suggested by William Gibson.

My dream scenario would be that you could go into a bookshop, examine copies of every book in print that they’re able to offer, then for a fee have them produce in a minute or two a beautiful finished copy in a dust jacket that you would pay for and take home. Book making machines exist and they’re remarkably sophisticated. You’d eliminate the waste and you’d get your book -– and it would be a real book. You might even have the option of buying a deluxe edition. You could have it printed with an extra nice binding, low acid paper.

How cool is that? How would it work? You’d come into the bookstore, go to the shelf where the traditional book has always been located, read a short summary of it on a few pages within a slim pamphlet-like volume or do the same on the bookstore’s Web page, decide if you want to read the book, and if so, head over to the machine to print the complete volume on non-toxic, recycled paper with a soft cover. Or something like that.


The Art of Translation

“…the only rule in translation is that there are no rules.” Barbara Harshav

Readers of this blog may remember how much I admired Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. Mercier, the pen name of Peter Beiri, is also the author of Lea a novel that I have been very eager to read. However, it has not yet been translated into English. To find out if the translation rights were still available, I wrote to Professor Barbara Harshav who did the English translation of Night Train to Lisbon. She replied that the rights had been purchased and another person is currently doing the English Language translation.

This was followed by a lively exchange on the art and process of translation. Reading a work of literature in translation, as I often do, is not something we ordinarily think about. And yet, once you realize there are many different styles and approaches to translating, you begin to wonder how true the translation is to the original.

In addition to German, Professor Harshav has translated a number of French, Yiddish and Hebrew publications. She is currently teaching a course on translation in the Comparative Literature Department at Yale and serves as President of the American Literary Translators Association. With her permission I have minimally edited and framed as an interview her responses to the questions I posed to her.

Q How does a reader know when a translation is good or bad? This is a reader, like myself, who does not know the translator, who cannot read the original and knows nothing about what distinguishes a good from a bad translation.
You raise the fundamental question about judging translation. In some ways, you are really buying a pig in a poke because there are no objective standards of quality. Signs of a bad translation would include strange locutions or phrases that are just slightly off. For example, would you write "completely new" or "brand new"? Minor details, but they can give the game away.

Another indication is that something just doesn't make sense, which means that the translator probably hasn't understood the original. More subtly, the rhythm of the English can be off, but it takes a fairly rare sensibility to language to discern that. However, that still leaves the issue of whether the translation is really conveying the original. And I doubt whether there's any way to know that.

As for whether you'd know if you were reading a less than perfect translation -- you wouldn't. In some ways, translation is one of the blindest items we buy (a pig in a poke -- translate that!). For example, if I get sick, I go to the doctor and if I don't get better, I try to find another doctor. The same with an auto mechanic. But we have no way of knowing if a translator has conveyed what's in the original.

Q Have you ever considered a translation a “better” book than the original?
I have had several authors tell me that. That raises a lot of issues about the nature of the process of translation as opposed to the process of writing itself. Aside from the major obvious difference, I suspect that translating a work is a more conscious process. I know that, when I've spoken with authors about their work, we have both been surprised that I often I know it better than they do, pick up connections they weren't aware of.

Translating, as I understand it, is a creative process. I have to live in a work, walk around in it, feel its dimensions, get into it. And to shift the metaphor, I have to feel that every single word is right. So, initially, I work on the leaves, then I get to the trees and from there to the forest.

So it's a tedious, self-conscious process that has to flow easily in the end. I argue that the translator has to be extremely humble and disappear into the text, so that the author says "that's what I wrote" and the reader doesn't know it's a translation.

Q What are the highlights for you of the process of translating a work of literature?
The greatest experiences I've had have been working very closely with authors. Knowing Peter Bieri was a great advantage, especially since, when I got into the novel, I recalled that he and I shared a love of detective fiction, which is an important part of the novel. Moreover, working together was absolute, sheer joy, based on mutual admiration and shared values.

So, to answer your question, yes, I think I got into what he meant. But that's been my experience with all my favorite works. I have to inhabit the work, walk around in it, see out of it. Indeed, as I work, I create images in my mind and translate from them. I hope you saw the scenes in Night Train. In the end, ironically, I know the work better than the author. Another experience with Peter was that, for a good part of it, I read the English aloud while he compared it with the German. Both of us were bowled over by that and found all sorts of connections neither of us knew were there.

Q I also wonder if it is important to have some personal experience with the place, theme, or the work’s central character(s) when translating a novel. Like you, Gregorious was a linguist, devoted to language and knowledgeable in several. Many of your translations are works in Hebrew. Was that helped by your very considerable experience living in Israel?
That is one of the fundamental problems of translation. Translation is not simply a matter of two dictionaries. Don't be surprised: I know many translators of repute, as it were, who claim that that's the essence of translation. The whole translating endeavor, as I see it, is understanding and conveying cultural differences; and that means not just knowing one, but two, cultures intimately to be able to find equivalents.

I think that one of the main attributes for a good translator (aside from humility) is the ability to play with language and not be afraid to push the boundaries of your own language. Walter Benjamin claims that one of the tasks of the translator is to stretch his own language.

And, finally, yes, I do consider translating an art. One of my basic principles is that sentences should dance on the page -- and that applies to literature, history, economics, philosophy and anything else I happen to be translating.