The Observer

As for the present young man, the last of the line, he did not know what to think. So he became a watcher and a listener and a wanderer. He could not get enough of watching. Once when he was a boy, a man next door had gone crazy and had sat out in his back yard pitching gravel around and hollering out to his enemies in loud angry voice….It seemed to him that if he could figure out what was wrong with the man he would learn the great secret of life. Walker Percy The Last Gentleman

Fictional tales of observers have always appealed to me. It is not difficult to tell why for I am not unlike the young man in Percy’s novel. Louis Begley has recently written a short story about an observer in the American Scholar (Autumn 2010). He calls the story “By Appointment Only.”

“I spotted her on Lexington Avenue, walking 10 perhaps 12 steps ahead of me, but really all I saw, all I wanted to see at first, were her legs. That was quite enough.” He followed her up Lexington until she entered a restaurant. What to do? What he does is wait. “This was one girl I did not want to lose.”

About an hour later she emerges, puts on her dark glasses and heads over to Park Avenue. “She was one hell of a fast walker.” He ponders where she is headed, why she was in such a rush, and gets a bit excited imagining what it would be like to be with her. Eventually she stops at a building and goes inside. Again he decides to wait until she comes out. But when might that be?

He imagines that if she lives there, she’d come out about five or so to go out to dinner, a film, or worse, a date. But that was over three hours away. He didn’t want wait that long; work piling up at his office. “You must understand I am not…someone who follows women in the street and stalks them and it was too late in life, I thought, for me to start that career.”

He returns to his office, his secretary gives him a strange look and tries to answer all his calls. At five sharp, he is at his post, staring at the window display of the flowers in the shop across from the building she had entered. Moments later she opens the door and appears on the sidewalk. “The beautiful child was going to hail a cab.

He doesn’t wait a second. He hails the taxi of his dreams, tells the driver to turn around and keep on the left to pick up the young lady on the other side of the street. Hop in, he tells her and we’ll share the cab. She considers this for awhile, finally gets in and says she is heading all the way downtown.

He replies that’s exactly where he is going. They start talking. He notices her speech “was less distinguished than her face and her bearing.
” He asks her why she is heading downtown. She replies, “I’m a sort of social worker.” “Oh, really, and what would I have to do to deserve being taken care of by you? It’s easy, she said. You pay money. With that she handed him her card. It read”

Dr. Nina By appointment only 917 333-5050.

“I do therapy, talk therapy and acting out. A lot of people need companionship. Don’t you think so?
” Then she noted the appointments are at your place. “Your place wouldn’t work? She smiled and said I don’t have office hours.”

“I think you’ve got a new patient, I said to the girl. I’ll call you next week.” In parting, he asks her what was she doing on Lexington and 69th where he picked her up. “A double session, she answered…he asked me to stay. So I made it a double session and threw in a half hour extra.”

Bird watchers watch birds. Children watch their parents. Only a few do not watch television. Cats spend half their life staring at people. I sometimes think people are not far behind.

A few years ago there was an article in the Times about people watching. “People-watching is to New York City what visa-gazing is to the Grand Canyon…” And you don’t just watch people, its OK to follow them and apparently there are no ethical qualms. It is understood to be the norm. I am sure that the attorney in Begley’s story is glad to know this and no doubt Begley is too.

There used to be a television program called Candid Camera devoted to the fine art of watching people respond to pranks. And writers write about people watchers of all kinds. I am always on the prowl for such stories. Future installments will occur on an irregular basis.


On Marginalia

In this week’s Monday Times there was an article headlined, “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins.” At once I shifted into high gear and read it with deep concentration, roused from the Net-induced fragmented thinking that has swept over me lately.

The article written by Dirk Johnson bemoans the end of the fine art of scribbling marks in the margin that he believes electronic readers are bound to lead to. The concern he describes is almost exclusively among literary scholars who will be at a loss once they are no longer able to glean the insights revealed by the notes writers have made in the books read they’ve read. How they do this has always been a mystery to me

It is almost uniformly believed that e-readers will put an end to this practice to the extent that notable writers read with these gadgets. However, according to G. Thomas Tansville, “People will always find a way to annotate electronically. But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved.”

The article cites the work of Heather Jackson who has written several books on the significance of the marginalia found in books. She believes these margin notes have considerable historical meaning and reveal “a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.” I confess, I have read Jackson’s books and have yet to be persuaded.

But it seems to me the issue extends well beyond the preservation of marginalia for scholarly research. The issue concerns the very nature of reading itself and the degree to which a reader becomes engaged with the text. It is clearly expressed by Studs Terkel, the oral historian, who is quoted in the Times article as admonishing “a friend who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.”

Most engaged readers read slowly as they stop to consider a sentence or an idea and sometimes put a note in the margin or highlight a passage to indicate this. And some of them will collect these passages and preserve them in what has traditionally come to be known as a commonplace book.

Not many contemporary readers do this. But it wasn’t so long ago that it was the norm, when readers wrote on the pages of the text what they thought about it and collected their reflections in a notebook. They might have read in a more disjointed fashion, skipping from one book to another to let their thoughts settle in or spend time annotating the material in order to make some sense of it.

This might have been the golden age of reading, the period that reached its peak during the Renaissance but is largely extinct now. What we have lost is not only the marginalia of celebrity readers but also the practice of engaged reading itself.

For some individuals the art of reading, as David Ulin, points out in his recent book The Lost Art of Reading is an “act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read…but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

It’s a matter of becoming involved in the text and thinking about it and while that is sometimes a time-consuming process, it is made a little easier by putting your thoughts down on the page so you can recapture them later. Reading a book may take days or weeks, but that is sometimes only the beginning of thinking about it. Collecting marginal notes in a commonplace book enables you to keep the reading experience alive and make the most of its lingering after effects.


Do We Think Differently Than We Did Before?

When I first read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker (2/14 & 26/11), essay “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” I was put off by its cuteness. But he was asking an important question—What are the cognitive and personal effects of the Internet?—so I thought I’d read it again. On review, I realize it is, in its own Gopnikian way, a really fine discussion of the topic.

He approaches the question by reviewing six recent books, each representing one of three general answers to the question. Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus and John Tooby’s essay in John Brockman’s anthology Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? are discussed first. He calls their position “Never-Betterism.” The Never-Betters argue that the electronic age has given birth to a new expansion of our minds and means of transmitting information.

The Never Betters also have their proponents in Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind and Robert Logan’s The Sixth Language that draw their evidence primarily from psychological theory. Gopnik puts their argument this way. “Contraptions don’t change consciousness; contraptions are part of consciousness. We may not act better than we used to, but we sure think differently than we did before.”

Then there are the “Better-Nevers” who hold that the price we pay for the Internet isn’t worth what it costs. According to those in this camp, what it costs is a continual state of dissociation and fragmentation of thinking. Writers who hold this position include Nicholas Carr in his The Shallows, William Powers in Hamlet’s BlackBerry and most recently Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. Gopnik describes their view this way:

“The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private spaces for minds in ways that twenty second bursts of information don’t.”

Finally, there are the “Ever-Wasers” who argue really there’s nothing remarkable going on now, that there has always been some new method of presenting information that is exciting for some and ominous for others. Gopnik points to Ann Blair’s book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age to illustrate this position.

Blair suggests that information overload was already being felt before the invention of the Gutenberg press. People then were complaining about how it would ruin our minds and that all the new books being printed were disrupting a person’s ability to concentrate. And then, in a telling passage for anyone interested in the history of commonplace books, Gopnik cites Blair’s claim,

“During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts facilitated by the use of paper accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic context.” Activities that seem quite twenty-first century she shows, begin when people cut and pasted from one manuscript to another; made aggregated news in compendiums…

In my view each of these three positions goes well beyond the data. Each makes blanket statements about the effects of whatever new age is being discussed. Each fails to take account of the wide variation among individuals in how they respond to any new technology.

As for the “Never-Betters,” speaking for myself, I find the Net a miracle, an amazing new research tool, and an infinite, easily accessible source of scholarly information. For me, turning on my computer in the morning is like opening the door to a vast library where I can spend all day. Of course, I wasn’t raised on the Internet, so I am not much help when it comes to predicting its future effects.

What the “Better-Nevers” claims lack is data, empirical evidence testing the claims they make concerning the way the Internet breaks down our capacity for reflective thought and concentrated deliberation. And they speak only of the purported changes to our mental apparatus, rather than its output. Are essays and books and scholarly papers any less intelligent today than they were in pre-Internet days? We need verifiable observations to answer questions like this, not a cascade of intuitions, speculations and hunches.

Concerning the “Ever-Wasers,” it is clear the historical record lends credence to their claims. However, to say the harmful effects of the Internet are not unlike what is always being said about a new technology (for example, the printing press or television) has no direct implications about the impact of the digital revolution. Perhaps the electronic revolution is a totally different beast that will transform the human brain in ways we have never seen before.

Gopnik concludes his essay with these wise words: “Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them. Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos.”


This Revolution Was Tweeted

Last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker about the role of social media in generating protest movements. He argued they have always emerged without anything like the contemporary forms of social networking. The revolution will not be tweeted was the way he put it.

As is his wont, he provided an example or two in support of his argument, those that emerged well before the Facebooks and Twitters of modern day networking. Most of his discussion centered on the civil rights movement in the South that depended on well organized, well planned protests by a group of friends.

Glawell asserted these and other pre-Internet revolutions occurred “without e-mail, texting, Facebook or Twitter.” He goes on to say that, “What mattered more was an applicants degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement.” Here he is following the views of the Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam whose research suggested that strong ties among the activists are critical to the success of any protest movement.

In contrast, Gladwell argued that social networks are characterized by weak ties. “Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch.” He believes that such weak ties do not give rise to high-risk activism.

Here, as in his other works, Gladwell over-generalizes from one or two cases to a much larger population of other ones. In this respect, he ignores counter examples, ignores the fact that not all revolutions, or activist movements occur for the same reasons.

He also does not take into account that today’s world is not the world of the sixties or revolutionary France where different factors played a role and where other reasons motivated individual behavior. Martin Luther King did not need what the people of Egypt needed and he didn’t have the tools the protesters have in Egypt either. Every social protest movement is different. In this respect, they are the same as any other natural phenomena.

What is the evidence about the events in Egypt? Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was recently imprisoned there for twelve days credits Facebook for starting the revolution that resulted in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. It was Ghonim who created a Facebook page in honor of Khaled Said, who was allegedly tortured and killed in 2010 by Egyptian policemen in Alexandria.

A comprehensive article about recent events in the Arab world by David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger in the February 13th issue of the Times takes issue with Gladwell’s claims about limits of social networks. They write that Facebook groups were “part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world.” The evidence they review leaves little doubt that Egyptian revolution was a well-organized, well-planned movement that took advantage of the enormous power of social networks. They were by no means limited by their purported weak ties.

We know that thousands of Egyptians were galvanized by it to join the revolt. As James Glanz and John Markoof put it in Wednesday’s Times, “Epitaphs for the Mubarak government all note the mobilizing power of the Internet was one of the Egyptian opposition’s most potent weapons.” We know that the movement did not spring de novo from a few people on the street, that there was a small group or organizers who were instrumental in planning and organizing the protest in Tahrir Square and elsewhere now in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya.

We also know that shutting down the Internet and access to Twitter and Facebook was one of the first steps taken by the Egyptian government to quash the revolt. And we know that similar steps are now being undertaken in other Arab countries where the protests are gathering momentum.

In the light of recent events in the Middle East I thought that Gladwell would at least qualify his views. No, he hasn’t. Earlier this month he reaffirmed them in a short note at the New Yorker online News Desk saying that “the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

Ah, the wonders of the confirmation bias.

To be sure individuals who have for years experienced oppression and whose rights have been abrogated will find ways to communicate with one another. But that rarely leads them to revolt. The tools that make revolutions possible are just as necessary as the reasons that motivate them. In fact, the tools of social networking may, in the final analysis, lead to the restoration of human rights at a much greater pace that has historically been the case.

Note: On Wednesday’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. He spoke about the role the online service played in the Egyptian protest and how its leaders had been using Twitter as early as 2008.


The Imperfectionists

How do you decide what to read? This is a question that is largely ignored among the literati. Yet in reviewing my own books and commonplace book entries, I realize the degree to which the collected passages are determined by the books I select, books that reflect the same themes year after year.

They are not mysteries, romance novels, rarely biographies or memoirs. Instead, they are primarily philosophical novels, novels that raise difficult questions or issues, posed by interesting characters who occupy an appealing place and time. If they tell a good story along the way, all the better.

The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman is not a philosophical novel. And yet I read it and thought it was a lot of fun. But what did I come away with? No grand ideas, nothing in the way of a remarkable person or unforgettable story, let alone any aesthetic pleasure. However, I finished it and even managed to collect a few amusing passages.

Rachman’s novel, his first, can be described very simply. It is the tale of group of individuals who guided and wrote for a small, never-named English Language newspaper in Rome with a dwindling daily circulation that never measured more that 10,000 copies. The novel consists of short-snappy chapters about eleven of these individuals. They include Herman Cohen, the newspaper corrections editor who one day noticed that Tony Blair was listed among recently deceased Japanese dignitaries.

Or Craig Menzies, the news editor, who was informed that everyone on the staff had received a photo of his young girl friend laying naked in bed with another man. Or the newspaper’s financial officer, Abbey Pinnola, who, on a transatlantic flight to its corporate headquarters finds herself sitting next to the man she just fired.

And we learn a little about the American industrialist Cyrus Ott who founded the paper for reasons that only become clear at the very end after he has died. Finally, we don’t want to learn anything about his air-head son, who takes over the paper briefly to pronounce its closing before the staff with a crudeness and insensitivity that must have always been his defining style.

And so it goes, one kooky character and situation after another in which Rachman offers up snapshots of characters, without ever developing any single one. This can be tedious, but Rachman makes most of them a little quirky or atypical and writes about them amusingly and sometimes surprisingly.

The paper and its slow decline is the only thing that binds them together. The newspaper is long gone, the writers have departed on their not-so-merry ways, and Tom Rachman has a tough act to follow. However, I will be on the lookout for his next novel. So will Christopher Buckley who said he had to read the novel twice to figure out how the young, 35 year-old Rachman pulled it off. He confesses he wasn’t able to figure it out.

After the novel concludes, there is an interesting exchange, between Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Rachman where they discuss the novel tangentially and the nature of writing more seriously. Gladwell asks Rachman, “If reading fiction civilizes us, does writing fiction civilize us even more?”

Rachman replies, “I want to say, “Yes!” But I don’t know that I can. The biographies of writers are so full of misbehavior that it would be hard to correlate writing and morality. What is remarkable is how often writers and other artists produce works of moral depth, yet are accused of having been monstrous in private.”

This leads Gladwell to respond, “Yes, there is no necessary connection between the sensitivity that is required of the writer in his craft and whatever grace and sensitivity that he or she may possess in person.”

Well, now we have something to think about.


Eros is Everywhere

Romance was among the most frequent themes recorded in a recent statistical analysis of those collected in my commonplace book. From a much larger number, I have selected the following to post on this auspicious day.

Eros is everywhere. It is what binds. John Updike

Love feels more and more like the only subject. Salman Rushdie

Talking about love is like dancing about architecture. From Playing By Heart (film)

There was always an inbalance in love—the one who loved and the one who was loved. Most of her life she had denied it, desiring above all a total equality in love. But nothing in her real experience proved her theory—her wish—correct. Frederick Tuten, The Green Hour.

In the ten years since the car crash took her from him, he had cherished her more than while she was alive. Julius sometimes heaved with despair when he thought of how his lush contentment with Miriam, the true idyllic soaring moments of life, had come and gone with his fully grasping them….He knew also that no other woman would ever really matter to him. Irving Yalom, The Schopenhauer Cure.

She loved him unconditionally, and there is nothing more sustaining than that. Eliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

Love never dies, he said. James Salter, Last Night (A short story)

Love…like food or air, is necessary but insufficient; it can’t do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle. Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed, when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness. Vivian Gornick The End of the Novel of Love

Everything else passes away; that which you love remains. She had to believe this, even if she wasn’t sure it was true. Brian Morton Starting Out in the Evening

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy, ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it next, because it relieves loneliness, the terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss… Bertrand Russell What I Have Lived For

…he found her again, like something he never knew was missing, like a song he had memorized in his youth and had then forgotten. Suddenly, clearly, he could see her, the way he had been able to see her at twenty, not her physical self at twenty, because in every sense she was more beautiful to him now, but he felt that old sensation, the leaving in his heart, the reckless flush of desire…Without these particular circumstances, this specific and horrible place, he might never have realized that the only true love of his life was his wife. Ann Patchett Bell Canto

Our culture, Prose asserts, has too narrowly defined the parameters of what we call love and drastically foreshortened the continuum along which each individual passionate affair or painfully repressed romance…is located… Christina Nehring Eros Unseated, The American Scholar, #71, 2002

Falling in love is the nearest most of us come to glimpsing utopia in our lifetimes. Rebecca Mead on Laura Kipnis’s, Against Love, The New Yorker, August 11, 2003

Loving is so much truer when sympathy and not desire makes the match; for it leaves no wounds. Lawrence Durrell Justine

Is it possible for a person to love without wanting love back? Is anything so pure? Or is love, by its nature, a reciprocity, like oceans and clouds, an evaporating of seawater and a replenishing by rain. Alan Lightman Reunion

It was typical of his life with Elise, when he’d had a life with Elise, that he would like her one minute and dislike her the next, that he would find her heartbreaking and lovable and then turn around moments later and find her repellent. Frederick Barthelme Two Against One

…and he looked at her for the last and final time with yes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in a half century of shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath: “Only God knows how much I loved you.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez Pentecost Sunday (A short story)


Ideas I Like

Literature and Freedom Does literature enhance freedom? Peter Bieri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier whose philosophical novel, Night Train to Lisbon, (among my favorites) has given considerable thought to this question. His reasoning is original and cogent.

“The overall idea: Freedom is the ability to shape one’s will according to one’s judgement about the desirable life. This ability presupposes a profound understanding of oneself: of one’s beliefs, memories, wishes, emotions. A crucial step in obtaining this understanding is knowledge of one’s imagination. Literature is one important source of such knowledge, both in the mode of reading and in the mode of writing. Therefore, literature, by acquainting us with our imagination, enhances our self-understanding and, through it, our freedom.”

The Reader’s Experience
In most critical discussions of literature, the experience of the reader is virtually ignored, as literary scholars tend to dwell on the meaning of the text from various theoretical or cultural frameworks. Instead, in my own reflections on literature I have been trying to focus on the experience of the reader, how literature enters their life, and possibly changes them. This view is rarely heard in academia. David Miall of the University of Alberta is an exception. In Literary Reading he wrote:

“I find it odd that almost none of the theorists in the debate about the fate of literature have considered examining the experiences of actual readers; several have remarked that such experiences are too idiosyncratic to be worth considering. But is that really so? " And later he asks, "What are readers doing when they read a literary text?"

In his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp discusses one of the ways literature takes us away from ourself (for a change) after chancing upon a student reading one of the Harry Potter novels during recess one day.

“An Asian girl sat on a wall by the playground equipment in what I recognized as a reader’s reverie. In her lap was a fat volume I knew from thirty paces – the fourth Harry Potter. My three sons have read them all, often more than once, and have watched the movies repeatedly. The fourth-grader was on her third pass through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I sensed her irritation at the interruption -- recess is short and returning to class gets in the way of the important thing, and here’s yet another distraction – but she was polite and articulate: “When I read them it’s like I’m really there. I forget about everything else.

Every dedicated reader knows – or remembers – the sensation of self-forgetting triggered by a book. When the girl realized I knew something about books, if not Harry Potter, and that I was not condescending to her as grownups do, she asked: “Do you know how I can write a letter to J.K. Rowling? Does she have e-mail? Do you think she’ll write back?” I suggested she write care of Rowling’s publisher and showed her in the book where she could find the address.”


Books as Bombs

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views…but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already.” Graham Greene

We sometimes hear of books that have exerted a major influence on someone's life or a large group of individuals. Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther is perhaps the foremost example of the powerful impact of the reading experience. It led so many young individuals into acts of imitative suicide that it was banned in several countries soon after it was published.

The San Francisco bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, used to have a page on its website that invited readers to "name the book that changed your life." One contributor responded: "The Harry Potter books changed my life. I used to hate reading. Now I am the best reader in the class. Those books changed my imagination. I wasn't too much of a dreamer. Now, I love to imagine things. I just hope that they change someone else's life like they did mine."

The Autodidactic Press once offered a similar invitation on the "Books that Changed Lives" page on its website. In citing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one individual wrote: "I first read the book as a sixth grader. The book was so searing that I vowed to become like that unusual man. Today I am a Muslim as a direct result of Malcolm's autobiography."

Recently a student of literature wrote to me: “James is mirroring my reality. It is the only thing keeping me afloat, knowing that some other mind experienced these complexities. Art is a world separate from the social, a refuge.” Her experience is similar to the one Shirley Hazzard described in a recent interview when she declared that poetry “literally and figuratively saved my life and enabled me to live inwardly.”

Book can sometimes lead to political and social change across a wide population of individuals. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a book that had a profound impact on me and almost everyone else who has ever read it. Sinclair’s novel documented the horrible conditions, the filth, the corruption, and the total disregard for the workers that existed in the meatpacking industry. It was the driving force that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and general expansion of regulatory control of the food industry.

While rare, Louis Menand reminds us in a recent New Yorker essay, “Books as Bombs” that other books have had a similar widespread influence. Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities has had a major impact on urban planning in this country and elsewhere. Rachel Carson’s now classic Silent Spring is often said to have given birth to the Environmental Movement and led directly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Michael Harrington’s The Other America is credited with shaping Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. And many automotive safety regulations were a direct result of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.

In his essay Menand reviews Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. He writes, “…an enormous number of women recognized themselves in its pages [The Feminine Mystique], and many wrote Friedan grateful letters describing the book’s effect on them: “I feel today, as though I had been filled with helium and turned loose!” “Like light bulbs going off again and again.” “I understood what I was feeling and felt validated!!”

Coontz is somewhat more restrained in describing the impact of Friedan’s book. “Books don’t become best sellers because they are ahead of the time. But people like to be able to point to a book as the cause for a new frame of mind.” And as Menand notes, in the 60s books were bombs. In my view there is no reason to believe they are any less explosive today.

Coincidentally in the week following Menand’s review, The New Yorker published a new Alice Munro short story, “Axis,” about the relationship of two women that illustrates the kind of force The Feminine Mystique and other feminine best-sellers of 60s had on women:

“When the great switch came in women’s lives—when wives and mothers who had seemed content suddenly announced that is was not so, when they all started sitting on the floor instead of on sofas, and took university courses and wrote poetry and fell in love with their professors or their psychiatrists or their chiropractors, and began to say “shit” and “fuck” instead of “darn” and “heck”…


Creating a Mood

Somewhere is the title of the recent film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who also wrote and directed Lost in Translation. In many ways the two films are similar. In both most of the scenes are filmed in hotel settings, take place in cities with a particular emotional climate (Los Angeles and Tokyo), and concern directionless individuals who convey a sense of dislocation, ennui, and isolation.

But whereas Lost in Translation accomplishes this with an ongoing dialogue of clever banter, there is very little talk in Somewhere. Instead the story is told with images, many of which remain on the screen for long periods and moods, also conveyed visually, of the characters and the situations where they find themselves. It is this simplicity that is the real strength of Somewhere in spite of its unsympathetic character who could have anything (and anyone) in the world at the asking.

The film opens with a long fixed scene of a desert someplace. Eventually we hear the roar of a car go by and in a flash it is gone. The car has that purring sound of a Ferrari punctuated with its familiar downshifts. We hear the car for a while and then it fades away. We realize it is going around a track. The Ferrari comes into view again and disappears. This goes on for perhaps five minutes. Is there something wrong with the projector? No. The car is going round and round nowhere.

The scene shifts to a suite at the Chateau Marmont, that legendary hotel and sometime residence of generations of movie stars. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is lying in bed watching a pair of twin pole dancers, eyes drooping until he falls asleep. Johnny is in between films that have brought him fame. It means nothing to him. Nothing does.

He languishes in the suite for days. He watches the pole dancers again, he is seduced by one woman after another, but feels no pleasure. He is not depressed, he simply doesn’t feel anything. Is this what fame brings to stars? This is what it brings to Johnny Marco.

You don’t have to be a genius to know how often beauty, fame and riches do not lead to a life of fulfillment. Periods of boredom and angst can come to anyone at any time in their life. Coppola remarks, “The film is really about an existential crisis that anyone can relate to, even though it’s set in an exotic world.”

Johnny is only alive when Cleo, his eleven-year old daughter, played by the remarkably expressive and graceful Elle Fanning visits him. Because of an unclear crisis in his marriage, Cleo visits for a longer stay and then permanently as her mother departs for Europe.

They play the guitar together, lounge by the pool, have a tea-time swim game under water (classic scene) and he takes her with him on his round of press conferences. She cooks meals for him, orders ingredients from room service, and one morning prepares, in almost slow motion elegance, as in a dance sequence, a meal of eggs Benedict.

At a press conference he is asked, “Who is Johnny Marco?” He is silent. Cleo and Johnny fly together to Milan where he receives a meaningless award. He is asked in Italian how he likes Italy. He says he just arrived. Together they fly back to the Chateau Marmont the next day. And so it goes, from one almost silent scene to the next. Johnny’s devotion to Cleo is his only redeeming feature.

In an interview Sophia Coppola said she wanted to find ways to tell a story that was simple and how “little details can express motions—more like in life…I wanted to think of visuals to explain the character and the state he’s in.” In both respects, she has succeeded. Somewhere is a distinctive film with a mood and feeling that remains with you for days.

The film is also about Los Angeles, the special feeling that this city often engenders, a feeling that is well known to me since days of my youth. There is its diffuse and muted light, there is the cinema culture with its fame and celebrity madness, and there is the driving, the driving everywhere, up Mulholland drive to the hills above the city, the long, straight desert road to Las Vegas, the 101 Freeway heading North.

The film ends on the road, quite literally. Johnny gets in his Ferrari, drives out Sunset Boulevard to a desert road someplace, stops the car on the side of the road, turns the engine off, leaves the keys in the car, opens the door, gets out and starts walking.


The Little Virtues

Natalia Ginzburg was an Italian novelist and essayist whose work I have long admired. She lived both before and after the Fascist years in Italy. Her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, was tortured and executed in 1944 for his anti-fascist activities; her second, Gabrielle Baldini, was a professor of English and is described in several of the essays in her collection, The Little Virtues.

This collection is divided into two parts, written a various times during these two marriages that on my recent reading seem to account for their different styles and moods. Whereas the first set is composed of short, lively, upbeat paragraphs, the second consist of long, monotonous opinionated ones. In “My Vocation” about her life as a writer, she says:

“But whether we are happy or unhappy leads us to write one way or another. When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy…it is difficult for us to turn our eyes away from our own life and our own state, from the thirst and restlessness that pervade us.”

Perhaps the most widely anthologized of her essays included in this volume is “He and I” that I first read in Philip Lopate’s classic collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The following excerpt is the way she describes her long relationship with her second husband.

“He always feels hot, I always feel cold….He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well…He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all…He loves museums, and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them…He loves traveling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move…He is not shy; I am shy…I don’t know how to dance and he does. I don’t know how to type and he does….I don’t know how to sing and he does.”

Each time I read this and other such comparisons in “He and I,” I am reminded of a similar comparison Woody Allen made of his relationship with Mia Farrow that I've mentioned before. “She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early -- 5:30, 6 -- and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places…. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. … She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."

But at the end of “He and I” Ginzburg describes a walk she and Baldini took before they were married that casts another light upon their differences.

“If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.”

Viva le differenze!

At a glance you can tell her essays are moody, some reflecting periods of a suffering that can never be overcome no matter how many years go by. She says she will never get over the war years in Italy. And yet some of her essays depict days of sunshine, cherished friends, and “a certain climate in which feelings, instincts and thoughts can flourish.

This was the spirit conveyed in her first essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” written when, together with their children, she and her first husband were exiled to this remote section of Italy away from books, friends, the cinema and the many events that filled their days, including their anti-fascist activities. “There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.”

In spite of the sadness that took hold of them there, their lives unfolded much as before, with new friends who offered them protection and the resources they needed to live relatively comfortably. In spite of the isolation and hardships they endured during their three years in the Abruzzi, she concludes,

“But that was the best time of my life and only now that has gone from me forever—only now do I realize it.”


Literary Memories

Do you sometimes recall when and where you were when you read one of your favorite books? Perhaps a book that you read when you were young that you’ll never forget? Or one that made you realize how good and how much fun reading is? Or that turned your life in a new direction? Here are a few of my literary memories:


Alexander Dumas' Camille was the first novel I read from start to finish in less than a day. I think I was about 14 or 15--about the time I was in high school. As I recall the situation, the 1937 movie with Greta Garbo as Camille had been reissued and for reasons that completely baffle me now, I decided that I wanted to see it. I am fairly certain my mother suggested I should read the book first and that she had purchased a copy for me.

And so, after breakfast early one weekend morning, I went back to bed to begin reading the novel. Going back to bed after breakfast was not something I ever did. That day was the exception and other than when I have been ill, I've never done it again. Reading Camille during the day in bed seemed like such a lark, thoroughly in tune with the spirit of the story. Everything seemed to fall into place then on what was no doubt a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles sometime during the early fifties.

I returned to bed after lunch and continued reading until I had finished by mid-afternoon, in plenty of time to see the film that evening. It was showing at a nearby art house and I know that I went alone. Now, more than fifty years later, tales of ill-fated romances and their screen adaptations continue to exert a powerful hold on me. What draws me to these literary works, as well as many so other forms of literary fiction?

Jack Randa Hotel
I can't recall when I first started reading The New Yorker. But I do recall there was always a copy around the house. And I know that once I started to read the magazine, I've never stopped. This is a tale told by most dedicated readers including its current editor, David Remnick, who, upon assuming the post, remarked, "I was raised on this magazine."

There were more short stories in each issue when I first began reading the magazine, sometimes two or three. Sometimes one of them filled up most of the issue. Who would not want to re-read those that moved you the first time around? Cheever's "The Country Husband," Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," William Maxwell's "What He Was Like" or one those unforgettable stories by Alice Munro.

I will never forget the first time I read Munro's "The Jack Randa Hotel," her tale of a fractured marriage and runaway husband. It was late in the afternoon, the day was warm, and I was in Italy, on the rooftop terrace of the hotel in Florence where I was staying then. It was a perfect moment. I read her story slowly. Very slowly, as I knew the moment would not last long or be repeated soon, if ever, again.

Alexandria Quartet
One summer when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I spent most of my time reading Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I should have been studying psychology, preparing for my exams. But I wasn’t. Nor was a friend of mine, another graduate student who was not entirely content with psychology either. So together we read in sequence Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea and spent our summer afternoons talking about the Quartet

Each of the four novels describes the same events in Alexandria just before the start of World War II but from a different perspective, the perspective of the individual in the volume’s title. It is a multi-layered series that takes into account the history, politics, intrigues and philosophies of that time and place and the intersecting lives of four closely-knit individuals. The experience of reading about them, their relationships, and their exotic ideas, lives and loves was exhilarating.

Recently, I started to re-read the Quartet, beginning with Justine. But it wasn’t the same. The allure and mystery was gone. That puzzled me. But I am a different person now, with a long reading history and a long ago departure from psychology. Perhaps that was the difference. I can read all the literature I want to now, whereas in graduate school I could not. The Alexandria Quartet then was an escape, a flight to a wildly different world from psychology, an act of resistance to its demands and limitations.