Commonplace Book

I turn to my commonplace book. I’d like to do something with it now. That means analyze it--examine its central themes and truths. I am in a quandary.

My commonplace book consists of two volumes, each about 500-600 pages, with an additional set of unbound volumes for the last two years. It is the history of the notable passages I’ve marked and then copied from the books and essays I’ve read every year since 1980. There is an electronic version on my Mac and a printed version that would sink a ship.

It is a gold mine. Every time I turn to it, open a page at random, I am struck by the wisdom of the assembled collection. Here and there, I come across a sentence, a paragraph that suggests something more general.

How can these nuggets remain locked away in the volumes of an unknown, idiosyncratic reader of the late 20th and early 21st century? How to mine this wealth?

At first I think a statistical analysis would be the easiest. I soon realize that isn’t going to capture the meanings of the passages, some obvious but most second or third order concepts. Nor of their beauty.

I go through some pages and start my own analysis. It takes forever, although it is worth it. Perhaps I can find someone to help me, someone who knows a little about me and my reading proclivities. A volunteer appears. She starts, develops an interesting taxonomy, but soon gives up. It is too much for her. I am not surprised.

It is too much for the software. Too much for the volunteer. Will it do me in, as well? I start.

I begin with the pages for 2010. At once I am halted by two passages that hit home:

From the poet William Carlos Williams:
Whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting old, or getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving and thinking things over.

From Paul Auster’s Paris Review Interview:
Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.

It continues like this, slowly. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t recall. I know I read it; the copied passages are evidence. But I cannot recall a single thing about its story or characters. This happens from time to time, even though my memory is fully operational. I go to find the book on the shelf. Of course, it isn’t there. This happens too often.

I continue and come across the passages from an article I do recall reading. It suggests a game, one for which there is no app. I call the game Counterfactuals.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

I start playing the game with the book I just finished, The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom. Immediately a counterfactual comes to mind.

But I am distracted by all of this. What to do with these gems remains?


Unequal Societies

This is the 500th blog I’ve written on Marks in the Margin during the past three years. From time to time, I have taken a break and I’m going do so once gain. I hope to resume with a retooled version of the blog. After the last break, I wrote about Occupy Wall Street movement that galvanized me into action. I conclude on a similar theme as I write about the multiple effects of the ever-growing, ever-pernicious effects of economic inequality in this country and elsewhere.

In addition to wide financial disparities, what are the other, equally harmful effects that economic inequality gives rise to? This is the question posed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their wide ranging analysis reported in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

I first heard about the book in a talk Wilkinson gave in at a TED presentation and later in Andrew Hacker’s review last month. Although the assumptions built in to The Spirit Level's statistical analysis are complex, the results are straightforward. Wilkinson and Picket rank the quality of life in twenty-three countries, primarily European, but also the US, Israel and Singapore.

By quality of life they mean several indices including education, incarceration, mental and physical health, etc. These measures are then “related” to how income is distributed in each country. Consider some representative findings:

• People in more equal societies live longer and their self-rated health is better.

• People in more equal societies are far less likely to experience mental illness.

• Children do better at school in more equal societies. Measures of child well-being are also better in more equal societies.

• Unequal societies have a higher proportion of incarcerated individuals.

• Measures of obesity, drug abuse, and violence are higher in more unequal societies.

Wilkinson and Picket write, “As income gaps grow, it’s not only the poor who suffer. Unequal societies not only bear “diseases of poverty,” but also “diseases of affluence.” The latter include cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as the afflictions of well-off people who are “anxiety-ridden,” prone to depression,” and “seek comfort in overeating, obsessive shopping and spending.”

Here is an example of the type of data reported in the book. The horizontal axis of the graph shows the level of economic inequality (The US, UK, and Portugal are the highest; Japan, Sweden, Norway and Finland the lowest). On the vertical axis is a composite measure of social problems. Wilkinson and Pickett conclude there are significantly fewer social problems in more economically equal societies. A similar relationship holds for most of the other measures they report.

However, it is important to remember that the results reported in The Spirit Level do not demonstrate a casual relationship between income distribution and any particular outcome measure. Instead, they describe societal averages in which even in unequal societies, there are individuals who are in good health, do well in school, and have few social problems. We can say that on the average individuals in unequal societies do worse on these measures and on the whole people in more equal societies do better.

Some critics have questioned Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistical model and, at present, there have been few attempts to replicate their findings. However, in one, the authors report that, “the most straightforward measure of health simply has no robust correlation to income equality when comparing industrialized countries using standard OECD [Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development] and UN statistics.”

In spite of these cautionary notes, The Spirit Level does put forward a powerful claim about the wide-ranging, seemingly interrelated consequences of economic inequality, a claim that is especially pertinent now as we enter into yet another political campaign and try to assess the future impact of unexpectedly popular Occupy Wall Street movement.


Fictional Conversations

Looking back into your own past along the landmarks of your life, you will find that great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings. For instance, a long and adventurous journey through strange lands which you undertook in a certain year may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu, or again you might realise that your encounter with Anna Karenina or with Julien Sorrell proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances. Pierre Ryckmans

In a recent exchange with a writer whose vision is not what it used to be, I inquired if she had ever considered listening to audiotapes of books. I thought she might object to the practice because they make it almost impossible to add passages to her commonplace book, as she is an avid commonplacer.

She replied that her major objection to an audiobook is that it brings a third voice into the conversation between the reader and the person heard in reading the text. It is as if the conversation we have while reading changes from a duet to a trio. She put it this way, “Reading for me generates a conversation between the author and myself, an exchange between our two minds.”

When I first read her statement, I thought she was referring to the conversation between the person in the story and the reader, not that between the author and the reader. When I am reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I converse with Henry Perowne, not McEwan.

When Perowne says, “…statistical probabilities are not the same as truths” or “It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children,” I tell Henry how much I agree with him, not Ian. This may seem like a small, almost trivial distinction but it isn’t to me when I become as engaged by a novel and its characters as I did while reading Saturday.

Keith Oatley made this point recently in his online magazine OnFiction. He wrote that like a real conversation between individuals, we also come to draw inferences about what the other person is thinking and feeling when we read about a character in a book. “When we need to make inferences we come to understand a character better, and can identify with that character more strongly.”

Do we “talk” to the characters on the page like we do when we have a face-to-face conversation with someone? If not, what distinguishes the two? It is said that individuals who live a solitary life, without much in the way of social relationships are likely to suffer far more personal and health-related problems than more sociable individuals.

But what about those solitary souls who spend their life engaged in “talking” with characters in books? Do they also suffer from the same problems solitary non-readers do? And might these vicarious conversations and the inferences made in this process avoid the purported deleterious effects of living alone?

It is the person on the page, not his or her creator that I talk to, come to know, and often come to regard as a friend. The relationship I have with imaginary individuals is often quite real, especially those who occupy my favorite books as I have previously mentioned here.

“I am convinced that many novel-readers go to a book not merely for the story but for the companionship of the teller of the story—they want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.” Anthony Burgess


From My Commonplace Book

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. Brian Vickers

As I approach Marks In the Margin's 500th post, I return for a moment to its initial purpose--to make note of passages from my commonplace book. Each year I collect two sets of extracts from the books and essays I read. I call the first Passages. It is quite a collection of ideas, conjectures, ruminations, and simply well written sentences, some clever, others funny, but mostly statements that have set me to thinking

I also keep a much smaller, separate section that I call Briefs. These selections, perhaps quotations is a more accurate way to describe them, consist of much the same kind of material, but they stand alone and are not part of a larger set derived from a book or essay or organized in any particular order.

A fair number of the Briefs I collected last year dealt with the pleasures of reading, and the literary arts in general. Here are some examples:

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin

And then you’d take a break at the wonderful coffee bar in the Cortile. (Pretty much all the Vat [Vatican Library] wax ecstatic about the coffee bar.) There’s a social aspect. You are talking with friends, with colleagues, with people you’ve maybe just met, about important things, things of the mind. It’s almost like being in the Platonic Academy. Daniel Mendelshon New Yorker

…a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England. From Information Anxiety by Richard Wurman

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good. Guy Davenport

It takes two hours to watch Molly Sweeney at the Irish Repertory Theater. But you’ll spend much more time thinking about it afterward. A deeply moving meditation of hope, change and despair, it’s a compelling piece of theater, one in which the ending applause is only the beginning of the plays effects. Ken Jaworowski Times

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations—such is a pleasure beyond compare. Yoshida Kenko

But speaking artistically—I like it when, at the end of a story, I can imagine the characters going on to do a number of things, all with an equal level of specificity. For example, at the end of Chekhov’s “Lady with Pet Dog,” I can imagine the couple leaving their respective spouses and staying together and living happily ever after. But I can also (with equal clarity) imagine them leaving their respective spouses—and then starting to fight bitterly. I can also imagine them staying with their respective spouses and loving each other forever, illicitly. Or staying with their spouses and slowly falling out of love with each other. So Chekhov’s accomplishment in that story is that those characters are so there, so real, that they live on beyond the end of the story, in three dimensions, and you feel their possibilities as human possibilities, i.e., unpredictable, with all the wild variations that are possible in an actual human life. So that’s the aspiration, anyway. George Saunders

…creative reading was at last inseparable for him from creative writing. But reading was just the means. The end—the purpose—was writing. Emerson

Behind any artist's urge to create is an egotistical impulse -- a desire to be remembered, to see one's works immortalized. Writers attempt to defy death by achieving eternal life on the page and in the imaginations of readers. Such hopes are ultimately illusory: obviously, a page or a book or a computer file may outlast their creators, but nothing has the stamina to outlast time. Yet few writers are either willing or courageous enough to confront the fact that literary immortality is essentially impossible. From a review of Paul Auster’s Invisible by Vincent Rossmeier


"Beautiful Souls"

Those who write about moral courage invariably wonder if there is anything that individuals who have acted courageously have in common. Their usual method is to undertake a series of case studies and then try to identify a factor(s) that motivated their actions.

So for example, Eyal Press in describing his recent book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks and Heading the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times writes:

This is a book about such nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.

Who among us has not asked ourselves how we would react when placed in a situation that required risking our life when doing so was contrary to the law, group pressure or a strong cultural norm? Whatever prediction is made cannot hope to capture the dilemma that would confront us if we were, in fact, placed such a situation.

None of the individuals Press portrays had given any thought to the matter, to prepare, for example, to act courageously when faced with such a situation.

Paul Gruninger was the police chief of a state in Switzerland along the Austrian border in 1938. It was illegal in Switzerland then to allow Jews fleeing the Nazis to enter the country. In spite of the law and the compliance of other officials, Gruninger put his career at risk to allow Jewish individuals to enter Switzerland. He said,

“Whoever had the opportunity as I had to repeatedly witness the heartbreaking scenes of the people concerned, the screaming and crying of mothers and children, the threats and suicide and attempts to do it, could….ultimately not bear it anymore.”

Aleksander Jevtie was a Serbian soldier at the time of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina who was ordered to pull fellow Serbs out of a line of Croatians about to be beaten or executed. Instead of obeying the order, Jevtie began pulling Croatians from the group by giving them a Serbian name, thereby avoiding whatever fate was in store for them. He said,

“I thought these people needed help the most, from the look in their eyes.”

Avner Wishnitzer was a soldier in the Israel Defense Force who refused to serve in the occupied territories. As many other Jewish Refusenks have said, Wishnitzer felt the policies of his government violated the traditions upon which it was founded, his own moral convictions, and what he viewed as the inhumane treatment of the people he was asked to control.

Leyla Wydler was an investment adviser for the Stanford Group, a large financial organization in Houston, who became suspicious about the securities she was asked to sell. Unlike her other colleagues, she started asking questions, too many as it turned out. In spite of Federal regulations prohibiting corporations from sacking employees before they have a proper hearing, she was soon thereafter fired. Subsequent investigations revealed the entire Stanford financial organization was a vast Ponzi scheme, second only to Madoff’s.

Wydler, a divorced single parent who like many of her clients was Hispanic, realized she could no longer in good conscience sell them ”products” that would lead only to their financial ruin. When Press asked her if she would come forward with her allegations again, she said, “Probably so. Yeah, I would. I would have done it again, because it was the right thing to do.”

If there is anything in common among these four courageous individuals, I sense it might be the empathy they felt for the individuals who sought their help or that they were required to harm, their ability, if you will, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I say this with reservations since I do not know of any direct evidence. The sources of such courage still seem to me pretty much a mystery.

While I greatly admired Eyal Press’s study, at the same time, I would have appreciated knowing something about those individuals who did not act so courageously even though they also knew full well the consequences of their failure to disobey or resist or speak their voice? Why didn’t they intervene? A comparable set of four such individuals placed in the same situation might have shed some light on this question.


The London Library

I use the Library almost daily—it’s taken over as my main source of reference and become my main (and now much treasured) place of work. There I can write away in peace—the London Library places me in a convivial atmosphere on, one quietly buzzing with fellow writers. Benedict Allen

When I was in London last summer, I went to visit the London Library. It was something I had wanted to do for years, motivated largely by my dream of establishing a membership library myself one day.

The London Library is said to be the world’s largest independent lending library. It is also one of the most inviting, another way of saying it is a place of extraordinary warmth and beauty.

The library is located on St. James Square, an oasis from the crowded city dotted with shady trees, park benches beside its well-manicured laws, and walkways, all of which are surrounded by elegant townhouses.

The joy of the place is not only the books, however, but also the cast of characters. The dusty fellow next to you might be a proto-Nobel-winning author…and the almost certain knowledge that the person in the next carrel cares deeply about words and ideas, and best of all, has a book to tell you about, in a whisper. Orlando Whitfield

The library collection numbers over one million books plus more than 750 current periodicals and adds over 8,000 new books each year. Members also have remote electronic access to over 1,000 academic journals, as well as a wide collection of literary periodicals, newspapers, and magazines.

The library was founded in Thomas Carlyle in 1841 and its members have included Dickens, Tennyson, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, George Bernard Shaw, etc. and T.S. Eliot who served as its President for many years. However, you don’t have to be a literary luminary to belong to the library, as membership is open to anyone for a relatively small annual fee.

I joined the library for myself when I was about eighteen and soon the place became an addiction, an obsession.” Orlando Whitfield

During a period of major cuts in funding public libraries and in some cases the closing of many branch libraries, there is an increasing need for independent private libraries. The extremely wealthy, whose income has risen of late at a dizzying pace are more than capable of establishing these libraries.

Their resources and in many cases excellent libraries can readily serve as their foundation. That was how these libraries originally came into existence. What better way to maintain the culture of reading and scholarship than by assuming a major role is founding these “houses of reading once again?”


On A Perfect Moment

“God has given us this moment of Peace.” Natalia Ginzburg Winter in the Abruzzi

There are times when a feeling of contentment sweeps over me. Time stops, I don’t move for fear the feeling will vanish. I try not to think. The feeling stays that way for a while and then disappears. I try to recapture it and can’t.

Nothing specific ever triggers a perfect moment, it doesn’t last long, and it can’t be predicted or controlled, nor does it occur frequently. In fact, I can’t recall when it last arrived. It is a mystery, not chemically induced, for that is not part of my life, although I suspect there is some subtle change going on somewhere among the neurons. Nothing I can pinpoint with any certainty brings it on. All I know is that it is a perfect moment.

A perfect moment is not the kind of experience that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as Flow, for I am not engaged in any particular activity or focusing on anything specific. In fact, I may simply be relaxing or sauntering around the neighborhood. It is not the same as an epiphany where you suddenly experience an insight about a problem or the meaning of something.

The first time I heard the term “perfect moment” was in a monologue performed by the late actor Spalding Gray. Apparently he had first used that term in his book, Swimming to Cambodia. He describes a visit to Bangkok where he had his first perfect moment.

“At first glance I just couldn’t imagine Bangkok, a sprawling city of heat and chaos, as being the kind of place where I would find my own “perfect moment.” But I soon discovered that if you’re prepared to accept it for what it is, for all the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, then your efforts will be rewarded. A“perfect moment”…sort of sneaks up on you when you least expect it. A full red coloured moon at dusk rising above corrugated rooftops. Or the sight, and unbelievable sound, of a long tailed boat as it blasts it’s way along the Chao Phraya River with The Temple of Dawn as a backdrop. …All you have to do is get out there whatever your budget. A “perfect moment” is priceless anyway.”

I am especially fond of Alice Munro’s short story The Jack Randa Hotel, her tale of a fractured marriage and runaway husband. I was in Italy the first time I read this story. It was late in the afternoon, the day was warm, and I was on the rooftop terrace of the hotel in Florence where I was staying then. I read her story slowly, very slowly, as I knew this perfect moment would not last long or be repeated soon, if ever, again.

It is said that the right book at the right time can give rise to a lifelong reading habit. I have always wondered if Alexandre Dumas’ Camille was that book for me. I think I was about 14 or 15 when I read the novel. As I recall the situation, the 1937 movie with Greta Garbo as Camille had been reissued and for reasons that completely baffle me now, I decided that I wanted to see it. I am fairly certain my mother suggested I should read the book first and that she had purchased a copy for me.

And so, after breakfast early one weekend morning, I went back to bed to begin reading the novel. Going back to bed after breakfast was not something I ever did. That day was the exception. Reading Camille during the day in bed seemed like such a lark. Everything seemed to fall into place then on what was no doubt a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles, sometime during the early fifties. I returned to the book after lunch and continued reading until I had finished by mid-afternoon, in plenty of time to see the film that evening. It was perhaps my first perfect moment.


Not Now, Voyager

“There is no frigate like a book.” Emily Dickinson

Many of my friends now are packing up and traveling hither and yon in all directions near and far. Some do this almost every other month, to Africa, Hawaii, Europe and just down the I5 to Ashland. I ask, How can they do this, how can they manage to head off once again, so soon after returning from their previous jaunt?

While I had my days of traveling, it was never quite like this and now I am growing weary of the entire enterprise. I have come to feel much like Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who writes in her “anti-travel” polemic, Not Now, Voyager:

…how much easier it is to let the mind, rather than the body, do the traveling. No tickets or schedules, no borders, no passports. Thought is the one thing that remains free no matter what changes outside the head.”

Schwartz wonders if people really enjoy traveling as much as they claim. And like her, I ask, “What do they truly learn in the new territory?”

Yet, in spite of all the anti-travel remarks in the first chapter of her book, Schwartz spends the remaining eight chapters describing various trips she took to far off lands, while at the end of each account, professing how happy she is to be finally back home. So much for consistency between words and actions.

For me travel was always a search for a place where I finally felt at home. When I was foolishly young, I thought it was Paris and then, when I was a little less young, but equally foolish, I realized it was Florence. I knew I could live there quite contentedly, but in the end, it too was not much more than a dream. They do have their winters in Tuscany after all and my life-long companion did not find the idea the least bit appealing.

Going off here and there, traveling from place to place for a week or so is not how I search for home. And so I return to Florence as often as I can and stay for a month or so each summer, wandering about the city, exploring as much of it as I can, only to fly back to the place I’ve never “connected” with and want only to leave the moment I get off the plane.

I do now feel that learning about a country, a place, the peoples and their culture can be readily conveyed in books and films. Since these experiences can be repeated and lingered over in the comfort of your armchair, whatever learning is sought may, in fact, be equally, if not more, easily acquired.

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

There is also no doubt it is carried out at less cost, less hassle, and none of the burdens of arranging tickets, accommodations and “all the rest of it.”