Notes from the Web

The Summer 2012 Olympics will take place in London. In a competition to select a piece of verse designed to inspire the athletes and serve as a motto for the event, the last lines Tennyson’s Ulysses were chosen.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The passage is a ringing call to action, exploration, and persistence. It also has a very personal meaning for me, as it is the passage that my grandmother stitched in a beautiful needlepoint tapestry that has always hung above the fireplace of my home.

Books That Make a Reader
Philip Roth recently spoke before The Center for Fiction about the books that turned his life toward literature. The books were four novels by Thomas Wolfe. He said:

In 1949, when I was sixteen, I stumbled on Thomas Wolfe, who died at thirty-eight in 1938, and who made numerous adolescents aside from me devotees of literature for life. In Wolfe, everything was heroically outside, whether it was the voracious appetite for experience of Eugene Gant, the hero of his first two novels, or of George Webber, the hero of his last two. The hero’s loneliness, his egocentrism, his sprawling consciousness gave rise to a tone of elegiac lyricism that was endlessly sustained by the raw yearning for an epic existence—for an epic American existence. And, in those postwar years, what imaginative young reader didn’t yearn for that?

Theater Chez Schmidt
My Last Play was written and is performed by Ed Schmidt in what The New Yorker calls “his perfectly nice Carroll Gardens flat for an audience of fourteen.” He has been performing his work this way since 2002, when he first started inviting viewers to his home. In My Last Play Schmidt discusses his life “on the margins of the American theatre” and when he concludes he does something quite remarkable. He invites the members of the audience to take one of the theater books from his library of 2,000 volumes.

As Hilton Als says in describing this uncommon form of theater-going, “His iconoclasm must be lonely. Which, of course, the source of any comedy worth its thorns.”

Virginia Woolf
Monday, March 28th was the 70th Anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death. I’ll never forget the letter, the love letter really, that she wrote to her husband, Leonard, before she left to take her life in the nearby River Ouse.


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another one of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.



Write a Sentence

“I feel I could not possibly live without writing, even if only for myself, in my diary…A thought that is not put on paper is as if it had never been born. I can only truly grasp a thought when I’ve expressed it in writing.” Hannah Senesh

Writing takes me away from myself. This happens when I have something to say. I write and time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is. Writing is liberating, a state of mind that is mindless.

"From things that have happened . . . and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason." Hemingway

It’s not so much the tale of her husband’s death (Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker 12/13/10), but rather the way she has written about it. The full interiorization of her experiences, the rhythm, the short rolling sentences. The frequent use of the first person, present tense. It rings in my ears. I start writing that way.

“Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one tamped with your personality.” Robert Darton

Unexpected ideas and experiences I had forgotten about emerge when writing. Sometimes I become a different person when writing and the words just seem to appear on the page. I think this must be someone else.

“I started to write again. I did it for myself alone, not for anyone else, and that was the difference. It didn’t matter if I found the words, and more than that, I knew it would be impossible to find the right ones. And because I accepted that what I’d once believed was possible was in fact impossible, and because I knew I would never show a word of it to anyone, I wrote a sentence.” Nicole Krauss

I don’t know what voice is. But I get into this mood while writing and it stays with me until the end. Usually it is in the third person, present or past tense. It is a kind of ironic, jesting voice that I sometimes find in the works of Coetzee.

“I don't mean style... I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." Philip Roth

Is it just a playful way of writing, poking fun at myths, styles, ideas, simply by affirming them in a way that makes them seem silly, ridiculous, etc. An example is Coetzee’s novel Youth. One technique he uses a lot is a string of questions, three or four one right after the other. Each question poses a different alternative, usually an opposite with the final one an absurd combination of the earlier ones and it is usually very funny.

“I have written nothing whatsoever for three years and I do not see any immediate likelihood of my writing. The writing of poetry takes time and I never have any time."
T. S. Eliot

Writing is an antidote to insanity.

“It’s hard to tell somebody what you mean to say. And that’s an idea that I’m obsessed with. It’s why I write. It’s why everybody writes. Because it’s hard to say what you want to say.” Jonathan Foer.

I have my best ideas away from my desk.

“How do your books come into being? Where do they start?”
“I have little pieces of writing that sit around collecting dust, or whatever they’re collecting. They are drawn to other bits of narrative like iron filings.”
Louise Erdrich

For me the pleasure comes in composing a thoughtful, sensible, clear page or so. In a way, the fun comes in meeting the challenge to put something worthwhile together. And knowing you can do it once in a while.

“A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner.” Zadie Smith

The muse arrives in the writing, not before.

“We write to taste life twice.” Anais Nin



The other night I went to cafe here in Honolulu that I had been hoping to visit before leaving. I entered, was politely seated, handed the menu, and decided what I wanted.

Off in the corner a man sat at a table, alone, like I was. He was reading something intently. It looked like a periodical or magazine of some sort. But he was also reading with a pen in hand, writing on the pages from time to time, and underlining sentences.

I don’t see that often. In fact, I don’t see it anywhere these days except at the university. I wondered what he was reading, if he was a teacher or a scholar who lived here. The entire experience was refreshing.

As I was leaving the restaurant, I went over to ask him what he was reading. He showed me an issue of The Nation and pointed to an essay, Indignez-Vous, by Stephane Hessel, a writer-philosopher whose book of the same name recently was at the top of the best seller list in France

At once I set out to find the issue with Hessel’s essay. In his introduction to the piece Charles Glass writes about the 93 year old Hessel who is of German Jewish ancestry and whose family moved to France in 1924. While serving in the French army in 1940, he was captured, sent to a POW camp, eventually escaped and joined de Gaulle’s band of Free French resistants. The Gestapo captured him while serving in one of the resistance networks, sent him the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps from which he escaped once again. After the war he was a key figure in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Glass attributes the popularity of Hessel’s slim but forceful Indignez-vous! to the “public’s need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor and immigrants.” Will the book have any readership in this country? It is highly unlikely, although one might fervently wish so.

In the essay Hessel expresses his outrage at any betrayal of the Universal Declaration. He asks his readers in France to remember the history of their nation and reaffirm its highest achievements. “It is up to us, all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations…not the society were our retirement and other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich.”

He says all of these social rights were at the core of the Resistance’s program but now they are under attack. “The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the Veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry.”

Hessel clearly believes that historical progress is made by successive challenges to injustices and that each individual is responsible for contributing to this task. The great challenges he feels most outraged against are the immense gap between the very poor and the very rich, “which never ceases to expand” and the gradual eroding of human rights and “the state of the planet.”

He also feels passionately that “The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll jut get by.” And throughout it seems that he is primarily addressing the young. “To the young, I say: look around you, you will find things that make you justifiably angry—the treatment of immigrants, illegal aliens and Roma. You will see concrete situations that provoke you to act as a real citizen. Seek and you shall find!”

The spirit of the French resistance lives on and Hessel’s reminder is a powerful manifesto of outrage against the many injustices that remain in contemporary society today. “To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts,


I don’t think I’ve ever read a more compelling call to action. How fortunate that I went to the cafe that night, that a person was reading Hessel’s essay and that I didn’t succumb to my normal hesitancy to ask someone what they are reading.


Organizing a Commonplace Book

A reader of the blog I wrote on Monday commented that Locke’s indexing method isn’t as complicated as I made it appear. This reader is a librarian so perhaps that should make sense, although she does go on to say, “The complicated part is consistent taxonomy so that every time a certain topic occurs you call it the same thing. You'd think this would be easy but it's not.” Her comment led me to look more closely at just how Locke did it.

The matter looms large for those who are concerned with how to organize their commonplace book. I imagine most readers simply list in turn the passages from the books and other materials they read. That’s how I do it in Word .doc with the author and title of the piece followed by the passages I want to record.

At the end of the year I add the collection to those of the previous years. So over time the passages I’ve chosen becomes a rather large, unstructured, unindexed “monster.” Others may have separate notebook for each topic and in the ideal world a carefully indexed list of passages organized by topics. That is more or less the way Locke did it.

At the outset he laid out an index keyed to each letter of the alphabet as shown in the photo on the left side of this page. Each of these boxes was, in turn, divided into five separate boxes corresponding to one of the five vowels. When he read something he wanted to add to his commonplace book, he added it to one of the lettered boxes based on the topic he chose for it (never a simple matter), for example “L” for a passage on letter writing. Then he placed it in the smaller box corresponding to the first vowel of the topic, for example “E” in letter writing.

Locke did not begin with a pre-determined set of topics; instead he created them during the course of his readings. They included a broad array of themes, each in turn, followed by the passage and a comment of his own. The exact method he used in doing this is unknown to me at this time. Did he create a set of pages for each letter, giving rise to a lengthy notebook-like document? Perhaps he explains this in his book, A Little Common Place Book, that I’ve yet to read in full.

While I do not select the topic for each saved passage, from time to time I go back to the yearly collection and attempt to do that after I’ve read the material. This is a very labor intensive, time consuming task. Imagine doing this for a yearly collection of 100 pages.

Because of my interest in the role of questions posed in literary works, I recently went back to look more closely at them in the second volume (2005 thru 2010) of my commonplace book. To extract questions from this electronic record, I simply entered a question mark in the Word Find box and recorded the question found.

I selected about three quarters of them for a total of 227 questions from 151 separate works of literature. Some books like Night Train to Lisbon had a great many questions, others like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had only one, as did John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In most cases I selected questions that had a general application and avoided those that did not raise a larger issue. Those not selected were either trivial, uninteresting, or framed rhetorically without seeking information or an answer.

Then I classified each one of the questions in terms of the general topic, issue, or subject that it raised. The first round of this procedure identified 48 separate categories. Since there was considerable overlap between them, they were combined and reduced in number to 17 general themes. For example, questions initially classified as relating to marriage, friendship, romance, and relationships were combined into the general topic of Relationships. Those concerning memory, thinking, language, and neuroscience, were grouped together as Cognitive, while Life represented a combination of Fate, Luck, Work, and Future.

The ten most frequent categories with the number of times they occurred are shown below.

Category Frequency

Relationships 38
Literature 31
Life 25
Cognitive 22
Writing 19
Self 18
Age 14
Truth 9
Morality 8

The following categories were also recorded: Emotions (6), Success (6), Place (4), Judaism (4), Beauty (2), and Time (1).

I doubt if Locke ever attempted to analyze the meaning of his classifications or how they related to his life. But he did annotate them which I have never done while reading, but only sometime later in a separate essay. I have always felt that doing all this while reading really becomes a distraction and too time consuming. It also interrupts the flow of the reading experience. For me it is better to do it well after I have finished the book.

So on balance, I still find Locke’s procedure too complicated, too time-consuming to do while reading and not much less so afterwards either. But I do think the results are instructive, if you are willing to make the effort.


Chronicles of Pain

Why do some people do so well with intractable pain problems while others fall apart with ordinary ones? Nicole Krauss Great House

A few years ago during a period when I had the flu or worse, I sneezed too hard. At that moment I felt a piercing pain in my back. It was subsequently given the name of a spinal compression fracture. While the pain from that memorable sneeze has all but vanished, without going into the details, it has produced a milder form of pain in my leg.

When I talk to my doctor about this, he invariably asks me to rate the level of pain on a scale from one to ten. I find it impossible to do this. Is a six different from a seven and what does a seven mean anyway? Trying to describe to another person what it is that you feel when you hurt somewhere “…is like dancing about architecture.” [From the film Playing By Heart]

In The Pain Chronicles Melanie Thernstrom tries to create a vocabulary for understanding the experience of pain. She writes about her own chronic neck pain, the various pain clinics she has visited, and treatments she has tried to alleviate it. She also recounts in considerable detail the history of various conceptions of pain, the evolution of the disease model, and recent developments in neuroscientific fields.

At least ten percent of the population in the United States suffers from chronic pain. The rest of us live a relatively pain free life. She calls this the normal state; the second state occurs after a debilitating, pain-inducing event whose effects can last for months or many years. She writes, “When you’re in that second state, you hold on to expectations of that first life….But people have to let themselves die and lose their old expectations.” Oh, that it were so simple.

After reading Therstrom’s book and her exceptional review of the history and current research on chronic pain, I confess to no greater understanding of it. And it never seemed to me that Thernstrom did either. Yes, we are better informed about alternative accounts, but I am still at a loss to confidently put a number on the pain rating scale and, of course, do much of anything about the normal aches and pains that come my way now.

The book is organized as a collage or patchwork quilt with five separate parts—pain as metaphor, history, disease, narrative, and perception—each with a set of micro essays, almost blog-like on various related topics. And through all of this she interweaves accounts of her own chronic pain.

Thernstrom expresses skepticism about most current pain management techniques and suggests that any improvement from them is probably a placebo effect. She notes that the practitioner’s force of personality may be responsible for any derived benefits, rather than the treatment procedure itself. Therapists who appeared to be most effective “…all possessed some kind of personal power; they knew how to evoke belief, and their patients actually followed their suggestions.”

The mystery of resilience is a matter of so many factors—genetics, temperament, luck, will, neurotransmitters, etc—that it is impossible to predict who will fall apart and who will master the condition of chronic pain. As Therstrom puts it in her epigraph: Dolor dictat (Pain Dictates).


Poetry Lab

Cabinet is a stylish quarterly magazine of art and culture that describes itself as playful, intellectually curious, hybrid, visually engaging, and thoroughly unconventional. It was named the “Best New Magazine” of 2000 by the American Library Association and “Best Art and Culture Magazine” for 2001 and 2003 by the New York Press. Have a look at the current issue here.

In 2009 the magazine inaugurated a Poetry Lab, a series of occasional evening programs in New York dedicated to a poet by what it calls unorthodox means. “Poetry Lab is dedicated to discovering what more and what else can be done with a poem.” Earlier this month the event was devoted to William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine and wrote poetry throughout his life. In his autobiography, Williams wrote, “As a writer I have been a physician, and as a physician a writer.”

Why do so many doctors write so well? The list is a long and distinguished one: Maugham, Chekhov, Walker Percy and more recently, Robert Coles, Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande. When Williams was asked this question, he replied:

“When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.”

Last Friday Cabinet’s Poetry Lab dealt with “textual-appropriation” which is another way of saying, drawing on material from a commonplace book in writing poems, fragments, essays, etc. In its announcement Cabinet wrote, “In the process we shape selves, build arguments, and navigate the cosmos of the readable world.”

The event last Friday was a celebration of the re-publication of A Little Common Place Book that is attributed to John Locke. The panel members consisted of historians and critics who have written about the cutting and pasting that constitutes the practice of textual-appropriation.

The introduction to A Little Common Place Book was written D. Graham Burnett, an editor of Cabinet. Because of the centrality of commonplace books for Marks in the Margin, I would like to quote a long passage from it.

“Reading is perhaps best understood as a peculiar form of writing, and vice versa. Renaissance thinkers took this paradox seriously, giving it concrete form in their "commonplace books," manuscript journals of passages copied from assorted texts and organized under various headings. The origins of the practice lay in the preparatory methods of classical oratory and medieval sermon composition, but commonplacing achieved the status of a true art among humanists like Erasmus and Montaigne, who used these notebooks to maintain command over an ever-expanding body of published texts, while culling material for their own correspondence, essays and literary compositions.”

The book reproduces Locke’s 1797 book which before its current publication existed in only one copy at the Princeton University Library. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy can do so at Proteotypes. I have not seen it listed yet at the online bookstore sites.

The publisher indicates the volume also has blank pages where you can record your own “thoughts or those met in your reading.”

They also say that Locke’s essay will instruct you on how to index those you record. I am familiar with Locke’s procedure and I confess its complexities baffle me.



It is almost impossible not to be aware of the recent arrival of the iPad2. Here in Honolulu the store closed its doors for a few hours in the afternoon last Friday to get ready for the big event. When they opened at 5 pm, I went over to have a look. I thought I get one and give it another try. What a dreamer!

I knew I’d have to wait in line for a while, but when I arrived, the number of people waiting must have numbered close to a thousand. I laughed and forgot about it. The store sold out its initial inventory within moments and they continue to sell every one soon after a new shipment arrives.

To be sure the thing is dazzling and some of the apps are, yes, gorgeous, but I ask myself: What would I ever do with it? What would it do for me? I prefer to read printed books, as I am addicted to marking them up. I like watching videos on my Macbook Pro. I can receive and respond to e-mails with it too. And typing on its keyboard is ever so much easier than on the iPad2’s approximation.

In a review of the iPad2 David Pogue opens his report with the following citations. “An utter disappointment and abysmal failure” (Orange County Web Design Blog). “Consumers seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it” (Businessweek). “Insanely great it is not” (MarketWatch). “My god, am I underwhelmed” (Gizmodo).

Here I am concerned with its application in academic settings. Would it help students to master course materials more effectively? Yes, they are craving for the device, but would it improve their learning? I know it is being adopted in some academic settings, but those who have tried it are not uniformly thrilled.

Earlier this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Wieder, published a review of what is being reported by academics about using iPads in the classroom. One university executive reported the slow typing on the iPad2’s small keyboard makes writing course work more difficult. In addition, the devices don’t run all the currently available educational applications that the university uses.

Professors complain that they can’t mark up the notes and lectures they transmit to the students now or suggest changes and make comments on student reports or more lengthy papers. Students chime in with the difficulties they have in taking lecture notes or marking up their reading assignments. In a word, the iPad clearly limits the degree of interactivity that is possible with old-fashioned books and computers.

And at one university 39 out of 40 students set their iPad aside and used their laptop in writing their final exam because they were worried that the gadget might not save their answers.

A professor of management who was testing using tablets in his class said, “When they’re working on something important, it kind of freaks them out.”

We heard similar expressions of dismay from others who have tried to do their reading on electronic devices, especially those who are in the habit of marking up and annotating the books they read. Meanwhile everyone is waiting for the next generation of tablets designed to make writing as easy as it is with books and computers.

I am especially concerned about what tablets are doing and will continue to do to the commonplace book tradition. If you can’t make notes, annotate and easily save memorable passages from your reading, how are you ever going to add them to your commonplace book?

Will notebooks or electronic collections of this material vanish? The end of marginalia will surely signal the end of the long and worthy commonplace book tradition. This is not a prospect that I and other readers find exactly pleasing.


Caribou Island

"Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn't fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair."

David Vann’s Caribou Island is a bleak novel. The setting in Alaska is bleak, the marriage that is depicted is even bleaker, and the way the novel ends is about as bleak as bleak gets. Why would anyone write such a novel? Why would anyone want to read it?

Caribou Island is the story of a disintegrating marriage, one that has been in a meltdown ever since it began thirty years ago. Marriage is such a strange institution that for one who has been married as long as I have, such a story, as bleak as it is, cannot help but be read. And when it is written with the power Vann brings to it, a power that is constant and, at times, quite beautiful, it is impossible to turn away.

The novel centers around the relationship between Gary and Irene, both in their mid-fifties, both retired now, both disappointed in each other and in their life together. They do their best to get by in a rustic cabin at the end of a dirt road on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. Caribou Island is a small, uninhabited island in a lake, not far from their home.

Gary is not happy there, he is not content anywhere really. “He had lived almost his entire adult life in exile.” He had given up on his dissertation in California, married Irene, who was “safe,” and together they had moved to Alaska where he turned to fishing and boat building and she became a teacher.

Irene had never grown accustomed to living there, it never felt like home. “A strange time in life, her children gone, her work taken away, only Gary left and not the Gary she began with.” She knows she should have left him long ago, that their marriage was a mistake, but it has taken her too long to recognize this and now it is too late.

The novel opens as Gary decides to build a small, cabin on Caribou Island. He has no blueprints, no equipment other than a hammer and saw, no one other than Irene to help him, nothing other than yet another crazy, romantic obsession. It is late in the season, winter is coming on, and yet he forges ahead, overloads his barge with logs, a few tools, and sets out with Irene in a driving, icy rain storm for Caribou Island.

As they reach the island, following an early accident that sends water streaming into the barge, Irene thinks, “If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things can could get, this was a good place for it.” And things do get worse and then a great deal worse as Gary and Irene haul, saw and hammer the logs together, hammer accusations and resentments into each other while they build “Gary’s idiot project.” Nothing fits right, not the logs, not their cramped conditions on the island, and above all not their marriage.

Gary thinks, “And maybe now was finally the time to let their marriage die. It might be better for both of them. A thing ill-conceived from the start, something that had made both their lives smaller.” Irene muses, “…you can choose who you’ll be with, but you can’t choose who they’ll become.”

Winter is closing in. The temperature plummets. The rain is ceaseless. Snow begins to fall. The cabin is full of leaks. There is no heat, a dirt floor, and a nearby outhouse. And yet the momentum of Vann’s writing carries you on.

Yes, Gary was finally alone in the wilderness. This is what he wanted. And he had built his cabin of sorts. He was never bothered by the fact that it was never Irene’s dream too.

“This was without doubt the ugliest cabin he had ever seen, a thing misunderstood and badly constructed from beginning to end. The outward shape of how he had lived his life, but not the outward shape of who he could have been. That truer form had been lost, had never happened but he didn’t feel sad any longer, or angry, really. He understood now that it just was.”

Dread mounts, the signs become ominous, Irene disappears into the forest, and the novel comes to a horrible end.


Myths About Solitude

Providing you’re not in a state of longing, living in solitude can be its own powerful pleasure. Philip Roth

There is such a stigma is this country about doing things alone, about living alone that it was refreshing to read Leon Neyfakh’s critical review, “The Power of Lonely,” in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. Neyfakh suggests our views about living alone or even extended periods of solitude, call for a serious reevaluation.

It is widely believed that living alone increases the likelihood of illness and decreases longevity, that a solitary life also lessens a person’s skills in social relationships, diminishes their ability to deal with stressful experiences, and may impair their cognitive ability.

And yet. And yet, is this the whole story? Not according to an emerging series of studies that indicate the experience of living alone has a wide number of positive benefits. Neyfak’s describes some of them. His accounts are brief and since I have not read the original research, it is impossible to vouch for their reliability. With that caveat, here are some of the findings he mentions.

• Individuals form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they are experiencing them alone.

• “A certain amount” of solitude can enhance a person’s empathy for others.

• Periods of solitude in an otherwise active social life improve the mood and academic performance of teenagers.

• A survey of 320 University of Massachusetts undergraduates found that more people felt good about being alone than felt bad about it. The authors of the study also reported that the emphasis on loneliness induced by a solitary, isolated life represents an unnecessarily narrow view of the experience.

• In another study of teenagers, the teens reported feeling far less self-conscious when they were alone than when they were with their friends or classmates. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people.”

The conventional view is that excessive solitude leads to serious mental and physical problems. But what is excessive? And is that going to be the same for everyone? Neyfakh shrewdly observes, “But one person’s ‘too much’ might be someone else’s ‘just enough,’ and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.”

In his forthcoming book, Alone in America, Eric Klinenberg suggests that being alone can be a liberating, creative experience for some individuals. They’re able better regulate their time and “able to decompress at the end of a busy day…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

It is also true that being alone is less distracting than being in the company of others. When alone, a person is less concerned about what other people are thinking, and can focus more clearly on whatever task is at hand. Is there a writer who does not prefer to write alone, indeed, to consider it absolutely necessary for their craft?

The contemporary novelist Maryilynne Robinson sings the praises of solitude.

“I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it…I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.”

As one who spends a good deal of time alone, I share Robinson’s view. At times it is difficult, but once you get past that, its benefits are deeply satisfying and can be a source of much comfort and a considerable stimulation. As Robinson says, it’s not for everyone by any means, but for some reason, it is for me.


Mingling With The Text

It seems that the business of marking or highlighting notable passages in the books we read has suddenly become a hot topic on the Web. No sooner had I written a blog about it earlier in the week, then Sam Anderson took up the issue in an article, “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The onslaught of e-readers and tablets is surely one of the reasons the matter has taken center stage, as scribbling on these gadgets is virtually impossible. And those who are dedicated, almost addicted to the practice, are facing a serious quandary. Anderson says that when he first read about the “spiritual and intellectual” benefits of marking up books, his life was changed forever. Here’s how he puts it:

I quickly adopted the habit of marginalia: underling memorable lines, writing keywords in blank spaces, jotting important page numbers inside of back covers…. Soon my little habit progressed into a full-on dependency. My markings grew more elaborate…I basically destroyed my favorite books…with scribbled insight.

He says he rarely reads anything these days without a pen or pencil in hand. Marking up these documents “is the closest I come to regular meditation.”

And get this: “…marginalia is—no exaggeration—possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.”

Well! Get the word out!

Anderson then moves on to a lengthy discussion of what he calls the “grand vision of social reading,” a topic that interests me less than the matter of taking seriously getting involved in a book by marking it up. Anderson imagines,

“…a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from Infinite Jest. These I thought could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion.”

Anderson also dreams of more than reading the marginalia of your friends and other readers, for example, those who share their notes on Kindle, but also, “the notes from all of history’s most interesting book markers.” Good grief! If you’re really interested in all those readers, I can’t imagine reading more than one book a year.

Do I want to read the marginalia of other people? (“I’ll show you my scribbles if you show me yours?”) Anderson reports his wife really gets annoyed when she reads a book he has already read. And I can’t imagine getting much pleasure from reading the marginalia of others especially while I’m reading a book for the first time. Maybe I might after I finish it, say to compare notes for a while. But I can easily live without that.

Once I compared the marks in the margin I made in Night Train to Lisbon with those of another reader friend of mine. I must have marked over 100 separate passages, while she marked less than 10 and there wasn’t a single overlapping passage between us. The probability of that outcome must be about .0000002 given all the passages I had marked.

Anderson makes no mention of the last but to me crucial step of transcribing the marked passages in a notebook or as I do, in a Word document. This is one way to “reread,” the book, consider once again the passages that mean the most to you, and have a permanent record to recall and perhaps draw upon in writing about the book.

Anderson, like all of us, hopes that there soon be a time when those who write the software for these digital readers will take the practice of writing in the margins seriously. I cannot imagine it is that difficult a technical problem given everything else these gizmos can do.


"People As They Really Are"

Do you have a favorite book? If not a favorite, one you recall vividly or read again and again? Perhaps one that changed you in some way? In Bound to Last Sean Manning has assembled the accounts of 30 writers on their most cherished book.

Manning begins by launching a salvo against e-readers, that those who love reading will never find an equal pleasure in reading a digital book as they do with the tactile sensation of turning a page with a book in hand or the sight of that odd little bookmark that makes its journey through the tattered pages of a well read book. Some of the contributors also had less than a kind word or two to say about e-readers.

Regardless, the delight in reading Bound to Last comes from the recollections of its contributors. I read the book skipping around from one writer to another depending on my knowledge of the book they wrote about. I started with Danielle Trussoni’s appreciation of Nabokov’s Speak Memory that I was trying to get through at the time.

I love the physicality of the book, and all the markings I’ve made upon it…Rather he writes that he is devoted to the thematic structures of his life, to those events that have the marvelous aspect of the timeless…

Then I skipped over to Anthony Swofford’s account of Camus’ The Stranger.

Books mean different things each time we read them. I go back to The Stranger every year or so, sometimes twice a year if I need a quick fix, a reminder of a youthful angst and hatred that are fashionable when young but that wear out as one ages.

Philipp Meyer wrote about Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book I have read more than once.

I also wanted internal struggle. Reading Hemingway, showed me what the best books do: they describe people as they really are—as people—rather than fairy-tale heroes….Books in the end, are such an advanced technology that we have begun to take them for granted…Your books, unlike your laptop, e-Reader, or whatever magic device they think of ten years from now, will always be there.

Perhaps the most moving account in Manning’s volume was that of Shahriar Mandanipur, a highly regarded Iranian writer whose works are banned in Iran and currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

I miss my library at my home in Iran. There are books there about which I could write beautiful memories. Where I bought them, where I read them, and what pleasures and sorrows I experienced from them. But I can’t go home. I’m a writer in involuntary exile.

In commenting on the Viking Portable Dorothy Parker volume Courtney Sullivan wrote,

Books are like family members, like friends. They go with you, and more than a couch or a quilt, they represent home, the familiar. Dorothy Parker is the human expression of wit and spunk and strength and rebellion.

Finally Victoria Patterson wrote appreciatively of William Trevor’s The Collected Stories.

We understand that books—especially a great book like William Trevor: The Collected Stories—have the affirming capability of shrinking anxieties, not by ignoring fears and doubts of making light of death, or even by appeasing uncertainties, but by witnessing and connecting, letting us know that we’re not alone.

Regardless of your preference for a printed or e-book, Bound to Last is a collection of deeply felt personal essays by writers who love their books. Over the years, I’ve collected a great many books I cherish. Perhaps the first was the two volume Dialogues of Plato, translated and annotated by Benjamin Jowett. I was given this classic when I decided to major in philosophy and they have always followed me in my wanderings from one end of the country to the other.

If you have a favorite book or one that means a great deal to you, I would enjoy hearing about it.


Dots in the Margin

I’ve never read or heard about someone who reads quite the way I do. Mostly I see readers, without pen or pencil, simply flipping from one page to next, whether it is in a printed or electronic book. However, Nicholson Baker appears to come close to my practice. He describes his routine in an essay, “Narrow Road” in the Autumn 2000 issue of the American Scholar.

“When I come across something I really like in a book, I put a little dot in the margin. Not a check, not a double line—these would be pedantic—but a single, nearly invisible tap or nudge of the pen-tip that could almost be a dark flick in the paper.”

He says he doesn’t like to make too many dots—no more than ten or fifteen in any book. I have no idea why.

He also prefers dots to any other marking procedure because it is less obtrusive, less distracting to others if they read his copy of the book or to him if he rereads it again.

But there is more: “I also write the numbers of the marked pages in the back. Then—and this is the most important part—at some later date, sometimes years later, I refer to the page numbers, locate the dots, and copy in a spiral-bound notebook the passages that have awaited my return.”

I follow the same procedure but instead of copying by hand (totally unreadable and almost impossible to search), I copy the saved passages into a Word document making them far more legible and retrievable.

And unlike Baker, I do this when I finish the book or periodical. Baker started to fall behind about fifteen years ago and he still hasn’t caught up. “I have dozens, probably hundreds of books with a column of page numbers written on the endpapers whose appealing sentences or paragraphs I have not yet transcribed.”

The only other instance of someone I know about who follows my method, at least partially, is David Cecil, an English 20th Century writer and literary scholar. In Library Looking Glass, he describes his procedure this way.

“…when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration…The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.”

Cecil is silent on his copying procedure, but he wrote and read well before the digital age. My hunch is that he kept a notebook of his collected passages but I can’t be sure of that. Instead, he may have simply checked the page numbers listed at the back of the book when he wanted to review his saved passages.

In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Major Works of Francis Bacon, Brian Vickers writes about the notebook culture of Bacon’s time.

“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.”

During the Renaissance, the highpoint of the commonplace book tradition, writing by hand in a notebook was about the only way you could preserve one’s reading preferences. And I suspect that is also true almost everyone who keep a commonplace book today.

I know people differ on the relative merits of typing or writing by hand. However, in my case, there really isn’t any other way, if I want to look back to read and retrieve what I’ve found most memorable in a book I’ve read. Or, indeed, if I want to find out if I have already read the book.


Books Change Lives

In this, the inaugural issue of Literary Footnotes, I will post short comments about previously blogged topics. Today’s issue concerns the effects of reading literature, a topic that in one way or another has been treated several times on this blog

The Effects of Literature
Can a book change your life? A friend has passed along the following anecdote that provides an unusual instance of just such an effect.

A woman on the search for a potential suitor used to ask prospects a set of questions. One was a trick question: "What is your favorite TV show?” (If you had one, she eliminated you.) The 4th or 5th question inquired: "What is the book that has influenced you the most?” Her now-husband replied, Man's Search for Meaning. That happened to be her favorite book as well, so she threw away the rest of the questions, and that was it. They married 2 years later (excessively cautious/rational folks) and will celebrate their 8th wedding anniversary this week.

A Thought Experiment
Posing hypothetical situations is a well-known legalistic and psychological technique. Occasionally, I enjoy playing the What If game. I think there should be an app devoted to this exercise.

What if there were no longer any books to read? What kind of world would it be? What kind of person would we be? This is not a fanciful question. Indeed, Nicole Krauss, the author of The History of Love and recently Great House posed it in answering a question she is often asked.

I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists: Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight thought experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, and soul, and as the journalist contemplated that nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.

We Are What We Read
One of the issues I’ve discussed is how easily we forget what we have read. Sometimes, I will pick up a book, begin reading, and after a while, sometimes even after I’ve finished the book, sense that something about it seems familiar. I check my commonplace book and discover that lo and behold I read it several years ago.

In a recent New York Times Book Review essay, James Collins, writes about how readily the details of a book he had just read and enjoyed so much completely escapes him. “I remember nothing about the book’s actual contents.” To try to understand why, he asked Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist who studies the reading brain, if reading ultimately had any effect on him.

She replied, “I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that book.” She described how reading creates pathways in the brain and the difference between immediate recall of facts and the ability to retrieve details of what you’ve read.

Elsewhere she has written, “We may not remember specific details of a book, but the very fabric of our brain’s networks have been contributed to by these words, these concepts and the thoughts that arose from them at the time.”

She went on to cite Joseph Epstein who long before investigations of the reading brain began wrote that if one knew the “reading biography of any educated person, we will know who that person is, [because] we are what we read.”


Literature and Freedom

Earlier this year Ian McEwan was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, Israel’s highest honor for a foreign writer. The award is given biennially to writers “whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society.” Previous winners have included Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, and J M Coetzee.

McEwan did not immediately accept the award, fully aware of the long-standing, bitter disputes between Arabs and Jews in this troubled region. After the award was announced, he knew his days would not be peaceful. With “varying degrees of civility,” many individuals urged him to turn down the prize. One group wrote, “that whatever I believed about literature, its nobility and reach, I couldn't escape the politics of my decision.” A fellow writer told him that next time he should get his prize from Denmark.

In the end he went to Jerusalem to accept the prize and delivered what to my mind was an eloquent speech. I feel almost compelled to cite excerpts from it. Throughout he spoke of the thorny relationship between literature and politics.

“I would say as a general principle that when politics enters every corner of existence, then something has gone profoundly wrong. And no one can pretend here that all is well when the freedom of the individual, that is to say, of all individuals sits so awkwardly with the current situation in Jerusalem.”

In this context he spoke of the nihilism, as he put it, on both sides: On the one hand,“…once you’ve instituted a prize for philosophers and creative writers, you have embraced freedom of thought and open discourse, and I take the continued existence of the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute to the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel.”

And on the other, “… the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called 'facts on the ground' are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation.”

With equal conviction and insight he spoke of the long tradition of literature and its relationship to individual freedom. “Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the works of masters like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the literary illusion of character and the representation of consciousness were refined, with the result that the novel has become our best, most sensitive means of exploring the freedom of the individual -- and such explorations often depict what happens when that freedom is denied.”

He acknowledged the many great Jewish writers both past and present—Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Bellow, Primo Levi and he singled out three contemporary figures, Amos Oz, Abrahim Yehoshua and David Grossman. And more generally, “We speak of a Jewish tradition in the novel -- a vast, complex tradition, but still bound by common themes: a sometimes ironical attitude to a god; acceptance of an underlying metaphysical comedy and above all, in a world of suffering and oppression, deep sympathy for the individual as victim; finally, determination to grant to the downtrodden the respect that fiction can confer when it illuminates the inner life.”

In spite of the “great and self-evident injustice [that] hangs in the air,” he concluded by saying, “I gratefully accept this prize in the hope that the authorities in Jerusalem -- a twin capital, one day, I hope -- will look to the future of its children and the conflicts that potentially could engulf them, end the settlements and encroachments and aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel, the literary form that they honour tonight.”

McEwan is donating the modest amount of the award--$10,000—to Combatants for Peace, an organization that brings together former Israeli and Palestinian soldiers to speak before groups about the impossibility of a military solution to the conflict.