The Lanyard

The other day I was strolling along a street here in Honolulu I chanced upon a strange looking object on the ground. It looked like this.

After some sleuthing, I determined it is the frond of a Norfolk Pine, Araucaria heterophylla, if you recall your Latin. Apparently the tree originated in Australia and now grows throughout the South Pacific. Here in Honolulu it is widely used as a Christmas tree.

As I looked closely at the frond, I was immediately reminded of a lanyard, the multi-colored plastic strands that we used to weave together at the summer camp I went to each year.

It didn’t take long before I also recalled one my favorite Billy Collins’s poems. No wonder, as it is called The Lanyard.

The Lanyard - Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The poem is best enjoyed if read it out loud. Try to capture the wistful humor that Collins coveys in this reading.

Note: Marks in the Margin will be on Spring Break for a while. Thank you for reading. Meanwhile, I hope you discover new literary gems and enjoy sunny days.


A Perfect Thing

I am holding a book. It is small, 5 x 7, an easy to hold paperback about 300 pages. The pages are uneven, deckle edged. On the slightly heavier cover page is a drawing of a villa high on a hill in Italy.

The colors are Tuscan—green, bright pinkish sky, earthy brown villa walls, red tile roofs. A vegetable garden, olive trees and tall pines are shown in the valley below.

The sky was turning gray … The outline of the mountain across the valley etched against the dawn, gradually darkening and growing distinct against the awakening sky. Lower down, mist caressed the slopes, catching like tufts of wool on the treetops.

The scene is bucolic, with one exception—warplanes are flying overhead. The tale takes place during the Allied invasion of Italy in World War II.

I am thinking the book I am holding in my hand is a perfect thing. I am reminded of Iris Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca. It may very well be a fictional account of Origo’s experience at her estate, La Foce, in southern Tuscany during the War.

For a bookmark I am using one from a small independent bookstore in a far off land where the culture of reading has a long tradition. The bookstore is a perfect place.

Together with the book I bought there, it is also a perfect moment, a moment that cannot be planned or expected and only arrives unbidden every now and then.

On the Web I read about an exhibition at the University of Amsterdam, The Printed Book: A Visual History. The exhibition is said to trace of the evolution of book design through the last 500 years.

In the Google translation of the exhibition brochure, "the cannon of Western book design is said to be a work of art and the printed book more and more a statement against “the e-book to be.”

In describing the exhibition, Alice Rawsthorn wrote in the Times: “ Some things seem designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one.”

Later she admits there are “some wonderful e-books” too and they have their well-known advantages. Still, she holds fast to the belief that “…there is still something very special about an adroitly designed printed book.” I am of the school, call us “old school,” if you must, that couldn’t agree more.

Not long ago, Kathryn Hughes wrote in the Guardian that 2011 was a year of beautiful books. She notes that Julian Barnes, in his Booker Prize acceptance speech, singled out the book designer of his prize winning novel The Sense of Ending. He called her the “best book designer in town” and had turned his prize-winning novel into “a beautiful object.”

Other commentators have recently made particular note of book cover designs, a topic that rarely receives much attention. You the Designer recently posted the covers of 86 beautiful book covers. And the Millions compared the design of US and UK covers of the same book. Here is one of a book I greatly admired last year with the US version shown first.

What is it about the design of a book that appeals to so many readers? According to Hughes, Barnes suggested that the design of printed books matters so much right now is “because of the challenge of e-readers, which tend to make all novels look alike.”

For me it is more a matter of art, the sheer beauty of a book’s cover and the way a book is bound and how it feels. I walk into any small bookshop and am immediately struck by the varied colors and shapes of the books on the tables and shelves.

Oddly this effect is strongest when I walk into an Italian bookstore. I pick up one of the books, may recognize the title if it’s translated from English, open the cover and begin reading. More truthfully, try to begin reading it. All I can think of is how much I wish I knew how to read Italian literature--the sheer beauty of those unknown words.


The Street Sweeper

…to produce a written account of the destruction of European Jewry down to the last detail and to bury it in the hope that it would survive…This was what kept them going—the need to tell what would otherwise have been unimaginable.
Elliot Perlman

I usually find a character or situation that mirrors to some degree my life in the novels that mean most to me. That is one of the reasons I found Elliot Perlman’s latest novel, The Street Sweeper, such an engrossing work of fiction.

I can only touch on one or two of the several themes coursing in and out of this novel—the nature of history, memory, and racism in America, the Holocaust, friendship, and the importance of communication. And chance. Chance is what brings the two main characters together and is the source of each of these themes.

A chance encounter between two individuals is not a totally random event. Rather it is the intersection of their separate, fully determined paths that is fortuitous. Had the chance encounter not occurred, their lives would have taken entirely different paths. And Lamont Williams and Adam Zignelik would have never met on the pages of The Street Sweeper.

Lamont Williams is an African-American ex-con, having been imprisoned for a robbery he never committed but in which by chance he became involved. Lamont has a probationary “Building Services” job at a New York Hospital and while making his rounds one day fortuitously befriends, Henryk Mandelbrot, a Holocaust survivor. It is Henryk who tells Lamont everything he experienced while he was in Auschwitz. He wants him to remember all of it.

“Tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.”
This sentence is repeated over and over again throughout this sprawling narrative.

Adam Zignelik is a Jewish about-to-be ex-history professor at Columbia as a result of his meager publication record. As he is searching for a new direction to his career, he learns about a professor in Illinois, Henry Border, who interviewed Holocaust survivors in displaced person camps and, like Mandelbrot, conveyed detailed accounts of the horrors they experienced.

This discovery takes Adam on a series of weekend commutes to Chicago where he begins listening to the recordings made by Border. Meanwhile, Lamont begins listening to Mandelbort’s accounts of his unbearable Sonderkommando “job” in Auschwitz.

“I had no choice if I was to keep living. None of us had a choice. It was live in this hell, a world like no human being had every known before, or not live at all.”

And later Lamont asks Mandelbrot: “You wanted to survive to get the story out.” He replies: “Yes, for what other reasons was there to live.”

After Mandelbrot has unfolded his tale of survival to Lamont, one that is perhaps the most painful “fictional” account of Auschwitz I have ever read, and Adam has grasped the equally unbearable tales revealed in Border’s recordings, their paths ultimately intersect.

This occurs as a result of Adam’s role in the overturning of an injustice done to Lamont while working at the hospital. In this way, the novel weaves together the parallel situations of blacks in America and the Jews throughout Europe during the Holocaust.

The first sentence of The Street Sweeper is: “Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know.”

The theme is repeated on the last pages of the novel: “What is memory? It is the storage, the retention and the recall of the constituents, gross and nuanced of information. How is it called upon? A certain protein in the brain, an enzyme, acts upon one neuron after another in rapid sequence as if to light them up…each neuron holds some pixel, some datum and if even one is lost, the sequence is interrupted. Then you have started to forget.”

Perlman does not want us to forget these events, they need to be passed on from one generation to another in all the ways this is possible.

The last sentence of this thoroughly absorbing novel, one that I have only been able to mention of a fraction of, is: “Tell everyone what happened here.”


Leonardo Live

Last weekend, I flew to London to see the once-in-a-lifetime National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. I was invited by the irrepressible Tim Marlow and the charming Mariella Frostrup, both well known to British art critics. I found it impossible to refuse their extraordinary invitation.

They escorted me around the gallery, spoke eloquently and enthusiastically about each of the Leonardo paintings and introduced me to several knowledgeable art historians who in one way or another participated in the creation of this exhibition.

As a novice in the world of art appreciation, I was blown over by all that I learned--the history of each painting, Leonardo’s life in Florence and Milan, his patrons and students, and the difficult business of restoring his works, as well as authenticating them.

The truth must be told. I did not fly to London last weekend. I do not know Marlow or Frostrup. And it has been over 30 years since I last stepped foot in the National Gallery.

But I did attend and indeed relish going to the theater to view a live video broadcast of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that has been presented as a one-time only showing in cinemas across the United Kingdom and in several cities in this country.

However, everything I said about the on-screen presentation is true. For me, sitting quietly in the theater, being informed by these learned scholars and listening to the breezy English television hosts, Marlow and Frostrup, describe in detail each painting was a student’s delight.

I imagine anyone with knowledge of Leonardo’s paintings might have plenty of reasons to discourse on the weaknesses of the presentation. That was definitely true of Roberta Smith’s critique in the Times.

She notes that “Leonardo Live” was perhaps the first instance of the digital format applied to an art exhibition. However, “Thankful as I am to have an inkling of what the Leonardo show was like, I can’t say that it is entirely a promising debut.”

Smith finds fault with the notion that viewing a painting on film “is as good as, if not better than seeing it in the flesh, even in the context of a crowded exhibition, is bizarre.” Her claim must be taken seriously. Yet, for me the experience was far more revealing than it would have been in person. I might note the background music, keyed to each painting, didn’t hurt either.

I was also far more engaged in the works than I usually am at museum exhibition. The commentaries of the hosts and various scholars were largely responsible, as were the detailed close-ups and background historical scenes made possible by the video presentation. I was able to see the gradual evolution of the restored paintings explained by the hosts and the experts they were interviewing.

I suspect that variations on how one experiences such a presentation are largely a function of their prior knowledge of art history. Since my background in this area is practically nil, I found the movie much more immediate and enlightening than I surely would have had by viewing the paintings in-person.

Here is a short preview of the exhibition.


The Courage to Care II

What compelled them to disregard danger and torture—even death—and choose humanity? What moved them to put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of saving one Jewish child, one Jewish mother?

Always there is the question of why, why did the rescuers act the way they did, and why were there so few. As they recounted their experiences, the majority struggled to understand what they did given the enormous risks they were taking. Here is how some of them answered:

Odette Myers (France)
The rescuers usually say, “It was nothing. Why all the fuss? It was the natural thing.
She speculates that because the rescuers were not so formally educated, they had to do their own thinking and that led them to respond quickly without deliberating about ethical principles.

Max Rothschild (Netherlands)
“…why did I do it? And I don’t let anybody step on anybody else’s toes. I have no philosophy. I don’t belong to a church. But when I see injustice done, I do something about it.”

Herman Graebe (Poland)
“I cannot explain exactly why or how I did these things, but I believe that my mother’s influence on me when I was a child has a lot to do with it….She said, take people as they come, not by profession, not by religion, but by what they are as persons.”

Johtje Vos (Netherlands)
“We were hiding 36 people, 32 Jews, and four others who also were being sought by the Gestapo. We had made a tunnel underground from our house to a nature reservation and when we got a warning or had an inkling that the village was surrounded, they all went in there.…we did it because we believed it was the right thing to do.”

Marion Pritchard (Netherlands)
“It did not occur to me to do anything other than what I did…I think you have a responsibility to yourself to behave decently. We all have memories of times we should have done something and didn’t. And it gets in the way the rest of your life.”

Gaby Cohen (France)

I do not have a scientific answer for why those who helped did it. I have asked myself that question over and over. For those of us who were young Jewish people at the time, it is not difficult to give an answer as to why we took the risks. We young Jews felt that it was our duty to help the helpless, to help those who were even in more danger than we were. But for the Catholic and Protestant families who took risks to help our children, it is not so easy for me to answer why. …What we know is that many people did it, they helped, even though we cannot say why.”

John Weidner (France)
“I only knew what I had to do, what my conscience and ethics compelled me to do. And I can tell you that I found a lot of people in all kinds of places---small people, of low social position; big people of high social condition; educated and uneducated—who were ready to help because they had pity and love and compassion in their hearts, and who thought, “It is my duty to help the Jews.”

These are the straightforward answers of a small sample of rescuers. While their behavior was of large significance, the reasons they offer for doing so seem nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, they were far more than that.

In an essay at the conclusion of The Courage to Care, Elie Wiesel poses the reverse question, Why were there so few rescuers? He asks what happened to those well-educated liberals and humanists who write eloquently about injustice and the many Nazi collaborators? “Why did they choose to remain insensitive to the plight, the tragedy, the murder of Jewish men and women and children?”

He has no answer. The question is disturbing and difficult and there are no accounts in this volume that give any hints as to what motivated their behavior. A companion volume of the non-rescuers and collaborators would be instructive.


The Courage to Care I

In those times there was a darkness everywhere…all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude of either complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care.
Elie Wiesel

Imagine for a moment you are living in Nazi occupied Paris. One night an old friend comes knocking at your door. She is nervous, pale and rather emaciated. She is wearing a yellow star on her coat. Your husband is asleep, as are your three young children.

The person whispers in a pleading voice: “Can you hide me and my two boys for a few days? The Nazis are about to roundup of all the Jews in Paris.”

What do you do? Do you really have any idea? Can you imagine the risks involved, to you, and everyone in your family, that if you are caught, each of you will probably be shot or taken away to be tortured and then, if you survive the beatings, shipped off to Auschwitz in a cattle car, where your fate will be unspeakable?

The Courage to Care, edited by Carol Rittner & Sondra Meyers, recounts the experience of individuals throughout Europe who, in spite of these risks, did rescue and protect Jewish individuals in Europe during World War II. They did this by hiding, feeding, and helping them to move to a safer place that in many instances meant another country.

Each of the rescuers describes, in their own words their experience in aiding these Jewish men, women and children. All told, it is currently estimated that over 23,000 individuals can be identified as rescuers. They came from countries throughout Europe, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, France, Bulgaria, Poland, and even Germany.

It is impossible to estimate the number of Jews who were saved during the Holocaust; we know how many were not. The Courage to Care documents the story of 20 of these individuals. Portions of the book are included in the award winning film, A Courage to Care that I often showed in my social psychology class when we were discussing bystander intervention in crisis situations.

Odette Myers and her mother were saved by the Catholic concierge of the apartment building in Paris where they lived. She awoke them in the early morning of July 1942 when she heard the Nazis were beginning to round up over 13,000 stateless Jews. She hid them in a broom closet in her apartment and convinced the Gestapo agents the family had gone to their country home. After the Germans left, her husband, a member of the resistance, walked with them to the Metro where another member of the resistance took them to a hiding place in the country.

The experience of John Weidner of France was one of the most detailed of the accounts and, in several respects, representative of the majority of the others. While he wanted to help Jewish individuals in the Netherlands where he was originally from, he admitted that initially he had no idea what to do.

However, he lived close to the French-Swiss border and was familiar with several routes between the two countries. Eventually with the help of others, including his family and friends, he established a network, known as the Dutch-Paris network, that brought Jews from the Netherlands to Belgium then through France, and on to Geneva.

He described how difficult this was—it was extremely perilous to help Jews, he had to find safe places along the route, and ways to feed them, arrange for false papers and find money to pay for their papers and food. Above all he had to trust the people who were part of his group, as well as the Jews, who if caught and tortured, might reveal the names and addresses that would put all of them in danger.

One of his agents was eventually arrested and wasn’t able to hold up under the torture, resulting in the capture of nearly 300 members of his group who were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Forty, including his sister, never came back.

He concludes that the most important thing he learned was “…that you can have all kinds of theories but if you do not have love in action, those theories and creeds do not mean anything at all.”


On Letter Writing

If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography?
Roger Angell

Before me sits a three page, typed letter plus an essay the writer included in her mailing. I have never met this person and it is unlikely I ever will, as she lives on the other side of the country in a remote New England village and is no longer doing any traveling. I am about to write a reply, quite similar in kind and no doubt will include one or two recent pieces I’ve written.

We have been sending letters back and forth like this for over five years. We discuss the books we are reading and mention a few notable passages from them. We discuss our writings and recent reflections on all matter of things. Rarely do we talk much about ourselves, although inevitably that intrudes. The letters are pretty serious stuff.

In her latest letter, she discusses Proust’s views on the suffering involved in writing a novel, a new book she is writing, and what Sholem Aleichem said about wisdom. “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” etc.

I “met” the letter writer while conducting a survey of individuals who keep a commonplace book. Her returned questionnaire was the most stimulating and detailed of any in the sample. There were many issues I wanted to know more about and I was led to write her a letter in reply.

We have maintained our correspondence ever since. She does not use e-mail, believes it leads to much mischief and our friendship is not of the sort that calls forth a telephone call on occasion. Besides, she is dedicated to preserving the fine and lost art of letter writing, a practice she often refers to as “one of the good old ways.”

I learn a great deal from her musings. Not long ago I sent her a book I had written. Because her eyesight is gradually failing, she asked her husband to read a few pages to her each evening. After finishing the volume, she wrote to me:

Your book, [her husband] says, ought to be read by every thinking person on the planet. I enthusiastically agree…Since completing the reading of A Literary Collage, one of us still asks the other, “Do you miss reading Katzev’s book?” Invariably the answer is a wistful Yes.

This amazed me. Never before have I heard anything like it. I have few readers anyway, but this! This was surely the most remarkable.

I miss the days when there was a personal letter or two in my mailbox every day. Don’t you feel the same? In the belief that it would be nice to get a letter in the mailbox once in a while, the literary website, “The Rumpus” recently announced a subscription ($5 a month) which will send a “author-penned letter a week, delivered to mailboxes rather than inboxes.”

The founder of the notion said: “I got this urge to get back to sending paper letters and I also knew a lot of authors who I knew would be really excited about it.” As of last month the following letter-writers have agreed to participate—Dave Eggers, Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Margaret Cho, Tao Lin and Jonathan Ames.

Ever since I heard about the project I have been betwixt and between about taking out a subscription. It isn’t the $5. Rather, it just seems a bit phony. I don’t know any of these writers and of course they don’t know me, so there’s little common ground between us.

For now I’ve concluded I am not that desperate for a letter in the mailbox. Besides, I have the pleasure of waiting for the next gem from my letter-writing friend in the East.


Simone Weil

I can, therefore I am. From the moment that I act, I make myself exist…What I am is defined by what I can do. Simone Weil

The life of Simone Weil has always been a test to me, a test to translate my beliefs into action, one that I have rarely met. During these times when people everywhere are putting their life on the line, I wanted reread Francine Du Plessix Gray’s Simone Weil, one of the Penguin Lives series of short biographies.

I was reminded what a complex person she was, how gifted she was, her struggles to understand the poor and make life easier for them and her various efforts to come to grips with philosophical and spiritual issues. And in each of these endeavors to put whatever conclusions she was led to into practice.

Simone Weil was born into a prosperous, educated family of secular Jews in Paris. Both she and her brother Andre were childhood prodigies. Simone finished first in the entrance examination for the elite Ecole Normale Superieure, graduating to become a professor of philosophy and a teacher in a series of French towns.

She moved from school to school primarily because the school administrators objected to her participation in labor protests. She lived with a family in each town and, in spite of her life-long battle with migraines, began living as consistently as she knew how with her beliefs.

In each of the homes where she lived, she spent her evenings teaching the children of the family that hosted her and helping them with their homework.

At every chance, she also taught classes to the workers in the factories in the towns she inhabited.

At various times, she took a leave of absence from her teaching position to work as a laborer in a factory. In one year it was at an electrical parts manufacturer, then later, in two different automobile factories.

She believed that labor work is the truest road to self-knowledge and understanding the plight of the working class, whose suffering became perhaps the central theme of her life and, as Gray notes, “her strong tendency to cultivate her own.” Later she writes:

“But she was convinced that hard physical work was essential for an intellectual, lest the mind become all too taken with itself, all too removed from the concrete realities of everyday life, the burdens that rest upon the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population.”

With every farm family with whom she lived, Weil helped them during the harvest season, milking the cows in the early morning, peeling the vegetables, and cleaning up the barns.

In 1936 she fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of anti-fascist militia group from France. It was there that she badly burned herself and left Spain to recuperate in Assisi Italy where she claims she had the first of several subsequent mystical experiences that led to a difficult and ambivalent relationship with Catholicism.

During World War II, she joined the French Resistance until she and her parents were able to flee France for the United States. Not long after, she eventually returned to London where she joined the Free French group. While in London, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium.

However, as always, even when she was a child, she refused to eat scarcely anything in the belief that it was wrong to eat more than then the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population, as well as her countrymen who struggled to survive in occupied France.

Weil’s condition quickly deteriorated and she died in 1943 at the age of 34. The coroner reports said, “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat…”

Philosopher, teacher, writer, laborer, activist, religious eclectic, a rich and paradoxical life, always questioning, worrying about the poor and their suffering and above all trying to do something about it, even if meant suffering herself, and in the end tragic.

In writing about Weil, T. S. Eliot characterized her as a “…mind of occasional flashes of inspiration…personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”



The word “sabermetrics” refers to the application of statistical analysis to predict and compare the performance of individual baseball players. It is the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research. Even though I am a lifetime baseball fan and a Founding Father of the exclusive Red Sox Nation, I had never heard of the term before I saw “Moneyball,” the film based on Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Lewis claims that baseball is unfair in the sense that money rules, that teams with the most economic clout attract the “best” players since they can offer them outrageous salaries. In contrast, the teams that are least successful have with far less financial resources to pay their players. For better or worse, talent seems to flow in the direction of cash.

But what is talent? That is the question sabermetrics addresses. According to Lewis and those voiced by the characters in the film, predictions of player success made by baseball scouts and other insiders are flawed because they are based on subjective views of factors that have little relationship to empirical measures of player performance.

The film recounts the tale of the Oakland Athletics beginning in 2001 when they almost beat the Yankee’s in the American League playoff series. In the following year, the Athletics spent $42 million on player salaries while the Yankees had a $125 million payroll. The Athletics began that season without the three best players on their 2001 team by loosing their first 11games.

At this point the Athletics general manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, realizes he and his scouts are not asking the right questions. In a timely meeting with a recent Yale graduate in economics, Peter Brand, played by the perfectly cast nerdy-looking Jonah Hill, he is introduced to the sabermetric approach to building a successful baseball team.

Brand persuades him that slugging and on-base percentage measures are far more effective than conventional offensive measures of batting average, runs batted in and stolen bases. Sabermetrics also analyzes performance measures with a rigorous set of equations unlike the more intuitive, “clinical” methods usually employed by baseball insiders and scouts. In addition, players scoring well on the basis of a sabermetrics assessment are much cheaper to sign than those selected by traditional methods.

Once Beane began hiring players on the basis of this statistical analysis, the Athletics began to win games. Although they didn’t win the World Series in 2002, loosing in the playoff series after finishing first place in the American League Western Division, they did win 20 straight games, a League record of successive wins that stands to this day.

Aside from the intelligence and power of the film, the issue it tackles has widespread implications. What is the most effective method of predicting behavior? The standard view holds that personal experience, clinical judgment, sometimes called instinct or intuition combined in some unorganized fashion and subject to all the biases and errors that combinatory methods often make, is the most effective.

In contrast, the statistical approach, empirical or evidence-based approach, combined on a fixed quantitative basis, is the most effective. Assumptions are built into the statistical models, yes, but they are adhered to consistently and can be changed in the light of further evidence.

The relative merits of these differing approaches have been compared in many fields—medicine, psychotherapy, correctional practices, and baseball to name but a few. The debate has gone on for years in spite of the fact that research has reliably shown that statistical decision making out performs clinical judgment. It isn’t perfect, but it clearly reduces the risk of error. Yet, because it challenges many long-standing practices, it is often strongly resisted.

“Moneyball” shows us how useful statistical methods applied to the prediction of baseball player success allowed the Oakland Athletics to achieve winning seasons despite the burden of severely limited player budgets. In fact, for years, the Athletics ranked first among all major league teams is dollars spent per games won. Can’t beat the facts, can you?


On Book Reviewing

If you can’t say something nice, skip the nonsense about not saying anything and pursue a career in book reviews. Frank Santo

A person has written a review of the book I’m currently reading. His review is published is the august New York Times Sunday Book Review. He considers the book simple-minded, amateurish, silly, repetitious, and, as a novel, “deadly frivolous.” Meanwhile, I am enjoying it tremendously.

Am I going to stop reading it? Do I feel the least bit regretful about purchasing the book, a not-inexpensive hardbound version of over 600 pages? After reading the review, is the book any less appealing? In answer to all three questions, a clear No.

I ask myself what then is the purpose of a book review. Is it important for the reviewer to speak ill of a book that isn’t liked, praise it if it is liked, or quite simply try to describe what the book is about so a potential reader can determine if it is one they wish to read?

The book is The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman. Why did I buy it? I greatly enjoyed Perlman’s previous novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity. In fact I thought it was of the best books I have read recently. I have also enjoyed some of his short stories. I am always hungry for a novel that means something to me and so I had good reasons for believing Perlman’s new novel would be one of those. It is.

I write about some of the books I’m reading and it is rare that I finish a book that I don’t like. In reviewing those I finish, I am always looking for what it has done right, for what keeps me reading it, and why I felt I wanted to write about it. I avoid writing about books I didn’t like, for a know full well that those that bore me to death will inevitably move others to relish.

Recently Phillip Roth commented that he doesn’t read fiction these days, saying he has “wised up.” While I seriously doubt that’s true and that Roth, as is his manner, is having fun with the interviewer, I do know more and more commentators are expressing doubts about the value of reading and writing fiction any more.

In his essay, “Why Write Novels at All” in the Times a few weeks ago, Garth Hallberg points to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as offering a widely voiced answer. In describing the heroine’s pleasure in reading Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse. Eugenides writes:

“It wasn’t only this writing that seemed beautiful…What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place….Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone.”

How often we have heard that before--we read novels and perhaps, also writers write them, because they makes us feel less lonely. Is that why you read fiction?

Does reading in fact reduce loneliness? I know of no evidence that it does. While I cherish a fine novel and while it often moves me greatly, it has absolutely no effect on whatever sense of loneliness I may be feeling at the time.

What I am seeking in reading fiction and what I hope writers are trying to impart to readers is a deeper understanding of contemporary issues, those truths that only fiction seems able to provide, and a humane description of the thoughts and emotions of other people as they meet the dilemmas that confront them.

This is a rich order, one that only the finest novels achieve. And I confess that The Street Sweeper comes close to meeting, in spite of its complexity and lengthy digressions, and the comments of a displeased Times reviewer.


Wislawa Szymborska

In 1996 Wislawa Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Before then, I had never heard of her. Not long after, I started reading her poems. They were so unlike most contemporary poetry in one key respect—I could understand them.

They were also smart, uncomplicated and perceptive. Her poems created larger meanings out of simple things—a chair, a tree, and what she called the “daily bustle.” Szymborska died last week at the age of 88.

She dreaded the increasing popularity that followed the Nobel award, preferring instead to live and write in solitude. In 2002 she said:

“Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration, but isolation is not good in this respect. I am not writing poetry about isolation.”

She continued: “For the last few years my favourite phrase has been I don’t know. I’ve reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don’t know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world.”

In October of 2010 I posted one of her poems. The poem, like so many others that she has written, lingers. In memory of Szymborska, here is the poem that I discovered at the end of Julie Orringer’s remarkable novel The Invisible Bridge—an epic tale of three brothers trying to survive during the Holocaust in Hungary.

It is a long novel that drew me in from the fist sentence and would not let me out for a full 600 pages. The following passage occurs in the novel:

…the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life is balanced. The scale might be tipped by the tiniest of things: the lice that carried typhus, the few thimblefuls of water that remained in a canteen, the dust of breadcrumbs in a pocket.

And here is Szymborska’s poem that appeared in her collection, View With a Grain of Sand:

Any Case

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.
You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.
Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?
So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net's mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can't stop wondering at it, can't be silent enough.
How quickly your heart is beating in me.


A Life of Learning

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.
Keith Thomas The Fifth British Academy Lecture November 20, 2001.

Sometimes I read about a person or situation that cuts through the endless distractions of life and reminds me what a life of learning can be. This was my reaction in reading an interview with George Steiner that appeared at the English Language version of PressEurop as last year drew to a close.

Steiner is an always-thoughtful writer whose knowledge of history, literature and the arts reflects a lifetime of scholarship and serious reflection. He has been described by A.S. Byant as a “…Renaissance man…a European metaphysician with an instinct for the driving ideas of our time.”

Here is what he spoke about during the interview:

• Close to 80 million, that’s 80,000,000 human beings were killed between 1914 and 1945 in Europe through “wars, deportations, concentration camps, famines and bombardments.” He confesses he is amazed that Europe continues to exist.

• His life has been inspired by a rabbi who said, “Truth is always in exile.”

• Steiner finds contemporary science increasingly inaccessible to most individuals. I even find much of the science of psychology, the one I studied and taught for most of my life, is completely inaccessible to me now.

• He has struggled all his life to understand the sources of creative thinking and has written a book, Grammars of Creation, to try to understand it. “But at the end of my life, I still don’t.” I suspect it will always remain a mystery.

• He asks the reader to imagine a world where neuro-chemistry, could explain Mozart. He says it is conceivable and finds it frightening.

• He worries a great deal about the fate of modern refugees. In a recent speech to members of the German government, he concluded, “Ladies and Gentleman, all the stars are now turning yellow.”

• He also worries about the new world of technology as he calls it, and believes it has significantly changed the experience of reading literature.

• Times of silence have also been seriously affected. “Silence has become a huge luxury. People are living in a constant din…Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman?” Does anyone read Plato these days?

• He finds contemporary literature in serious disrepair. “Literature has chosen the domain of small scale personal relationships, and no longer deals with great metaphysical themes.” When was the last time you read a philosophical novel?

• The study of Jewish intellectual history and passion for art in the broadest sense has been the central themes of his life. “I want to stay close to the Shoah, in a place where I can speak my four languages. They are my escape, my greatest joy and pleasure.”


Revisiting Writing

To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason.

That was the first blog post of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and often-jailed dissident. He wrote that sentence as he was first learning to type and had little experience of writing.

I am thoroughly in agreement with Weiwei. Writing is all about expressing yourself. When I read something or when an idea comes to mind, the first thing I want to do is write something about it. Writing clarifies and completes the notion in a way that speaking doesn’t. It is also a catalyst for other ideas and making contact with the snippets that are hidden away in the folders of my laptop..

“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

I find my voice in writing, not speaking. It is all in the fingers, not the vocal chords. How strange. I don’t know what it is called. But I get into this mood while writing and it stays with me until the end. Usually it is when I write in the third person, present or past tense. This separates the words from myself and, thereby, makes them less personal. It is a kind of ironic, jesting, voice that I sometimes find in the works of Coetzee.

There are times when I am reading a novel or story when I fall into its mood and its words and the way they are put together so that I begin to think and write like the people in the story. I mimic them in both spirit and tone. I think about my life from their perspective and take on their ways of expressing it.

This happened to me while reading Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed and I did nothing to push it away. The same happened recently in reading some of the stories in Don DeLillo’s recent The Angel Esmeralda.

It is how the characters in a film sometimes affect me. I come out of the theater and I am one of them. It is a strange experience and while it never lasts long after a film, it tends to last quite a bit longer while reading a book, especially a lengthy one.

Is this how we are influenced by the arts? Do their effects linger even when we aren’t aware of them? Perhaps we become the people in the book or the film in ways that are subtle and beyond our comprehension.

Ideas I didn’t know I had within me emerge when I’m writing. They arrive in the writing, not before. The words simply appear on the page. Afterwards, I think, that cannot be me. Hemingway described the experience. "The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it."

For me it all boils down to composing a sensible, worthwhile page or so once in a while. The pleasure is being able to do that. It is like working out; writing gives me a setting to work out my mind.

I used to think that I write primarily for myself, to try to compose something clearly and well thought out, even smart. I thought I didn’t have any readers in mind, as few as there are, but only to meet whatever standard I set for myself.

But now I wonder. Maybe I’m writing to converse, to make contact with another person even though the person is never there or replies. Nicole Krauss wrote, "I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely."

Maybe that’s what I’m doing too, nowhere near as well as Krauss, but still because the world is a pretty lonely place.