The Auschwitz Volunteer

There is always a difference between saying you will do something and actually doing it. A long time before, many years before, I had worked on myself to be able to fuse the two. Witold Pilecki

On September 19, 1940 in Warsaw, Poland a man walked into a Nazi roundup of Polish citizens. He knew exactly what he was doing. What he was doing was volunteering to be shipped to Auschwitz along with the others rounded up that day.

His name was Witold Pilecki and he is the only known individual to volunteer to be taken to Auschwitz. I was rather stunned when I first read about him; everyone is. In light of all that we know about Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps, his act is no doubt one of the most courageous anyone has ever performed.

At the time Pilecki was a member of the Polish Underground in Nazi occupied Poland that had been split in half with the Russians occupying the eastern section and Germans the west.

In The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Pilecki describes what he and other prisoners went through at the camp. His report was written after he managed to escape and after many decades in which the Communist government in Poland censored the report.

It has finally been translated into English. The translator comments that he has tried to maintain the unrevised and unpolished character of his writing. The publisher notes: “As a result this report of his Auschwitz mission has a rare immediacy and particularly personal voice—it reads as if Pilecki were sitting in the room with us telling his story.”

At the outset Pilecki writes: “The game which I was now playing in Auschwitz was dangerous. This sentence does not really convey the reality; in fact I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous."

His mission had three objectives:

• To distribute food and build morale for the prisoners, along with news from outside

• To send out reports about what was going on in the camp

• To organize an armed uprising to take over the camp with the support of Polish or Allied arms and troops

Pilecki succeeded in sending out information about the conditions in the camp and in building morale among the prisoners, but in spite of what was well known after a few years, neither the Polish Underground, nor Allied forces did anything to intervene in what had become a death and torture camp.

Starvation, shootings, disease, prolonged exposure to the cold and heat, cutting with sharp instruments, overwork, gassing, phenol injections, all of these brutal atrocities were used by the Germans, first on the Polish prisoners, then on the Russians captured during the German invasion of Soviet Russia and finally on the Jews.

Pilecki writes that he had “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it” He reports that the Soviet prisoners were the first victims of the gassing by Zyklon B and that they were so tightly packed in the crematoria “that even in death they could not fall over.” And of the murdered Jews: “Over a thousand a day from the new transports were gassed. The corpses were burnt in the new crematoria.”

After being in Auschwitz a little over two and a half years, Pilecki, along with another prisoner escaped from the camp through an ingenious and difficult route through the camp bakery. Eventually he returned to Warsaw, participated in the Warsaw Uprising, but in 1947 was arrested by the Polish Communist secret police and executed as an “imperialist spy” the following year.

In the Forward to the book, Rabbi Michael Schudrick of Poland wrote: “May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.”


La Rafle (The Roundup)

In thinking of the lives never allowed to blossom, of those children deprived of a future, those destinies cut short, we must raise still further the demands we make of our own lives. By refusing indifference, neglect, and complacency, we shall make ourselves stronger together. Francois Hollande

The French film La Rafle begins with the roundup of 13,000 Jewish men, women and children at 4 AM on the morning of July 16, 1942 in Nazi occupied Paris, by members of the collaborating French police.

They were taken to a transit camp at Drancy in the suburbs of Paris or a huge bicycle track (Velodrome d’Hiver) where they remained for several days without food and water. Of these 13,000 individuals only 100 are believed to have survived.

The German directive to the French police read: “The teams charged with the arrests will have to proceed with the most possible speed, without useless words and without comment. Furthermore, at the moment of the arrest, the well-foundedness or ill-foundedness of this arrest is not to be discussed.”

Originally the Germans had ordered the arrest of 25,000 French Jews. The fact that only half that number were rounded up reflects the courage of those French citizens who hid at least 10,000 of their Jewish friends and neighbors.

Nevertheless, the police arrested 3,118 men, 5,919 women, and 4,115 children. Eventually these 13,152 Jewish citizens of France were taken by train (cattle cars) with their families to a transit camp closer to Germany. Then they were transferred to Auschwitz in Poland, this time separated from their families, with men in one set of cars, women in another, and children in the third,

The horrors of life in Auschwitz, the brutality of the German guards and subsequent gassing of the Jews in the crematorium are too grim to be recounted here. The film focuses on the treatment of the sick and emaciated Jews, and the terror of the children as they are separated from their mother and father. It also centers on one child who somehow managed to escape from the camp, wend his way back to Paris, only to learn that everyone in his family has been killed.

The child, Joseph Weisman, now 80, believes it is time for the French to speak out on the fate of these wartime Jews. For the most part, the police and leaders of France have resisted a public acknowledgment of these events. Most of the records of the raids were destroyed after the war and only recently have the surviving records of one police station been discovered.

Wiseman says, “When I speak about it, it suffocates me, chokes me. It’s important to tell this story to the youth of today. It is they who will write the story of tomorrow.”

The appearance of La Rafle coincides with the 70th Anniversary of the mass arrests. While not the first public acknowledgment of the government’s role in the roundup, last month there were a series of public commemorations, including museum exhibitions and an address by President Francois Hollande.

The director of the film Rose Bosch, wrote: “La Rafle is a truthful account of events that took place on that morning in July 1942. Having experienced so many horrible things around the world when I was a journalist, I was angered by the fact that children were always on the front line. I was going to tell this story from the children’s point of view, the point of view of a group of real life children who experienced all this in Paris in 1942.”


On A Summer Day

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. Henry James

A summer morning is every bit as beautiful to me, the clear light, freshness in the air, the sun reflecting off the nearby buildings. I head out and it is already approaching 90. This is going to be a perfect summer day.

How do others view summer mornings and afternoons? To find out I did a targeted search of the word “summer” in my commonplace book, a collection of passages from practically every book I’ve read since 1988.

Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Christopher Wilkins The Measure of Love

I felt like someone feels who spends a bright summer’s afternoon in a dark, smoky cinema, engrossed in some tenebrous gothic drama, only to emerge blinking into a world where it is still broad daylight and where there are shops and children and safety and laughter and people getting on with their lives.

Ann Patchett Bel Canto
In Paris, Simon Thibault had loved his wife, though not always faithfully or with a great deal of attention. They had been married for twenty-five years. There had been two children, a summer month spent every year at the sea with friends, various jobs, various family dogs, large family Christmases that included many elderly relatives.

Colm Toibin The Master
…he could not stop asking himself what he wished for now, and answering that he wanted only more of this—calm days, a beautiful small house and this soft summer light.

Anita Brookner A Friend from England
One always expects the summer to last for much longer than it does: one forgets the very sensation of being cold.

Andre Aciman Out of Egypt
Summers were long in Venice, she said, and there was nothing she liked more some days than to take the vaporetto and ride around the city, or head directly for the Lido and spend a morning on the beach by herself. She loved the sea. I loved it too, I said, reminding her that it was she who taught me how to swim.

Ian McEwan The Child in Time
I don’t remember a hotter summer than this in seventy-four years. It’s hot. In fact, I’d say it was too hot. Stephen said that was better than too wet and his father agreed. …Give me the heat anytime.

Elizabeth Hawes Camus, a Romance
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.

Natalia Ginzburg The Little Virtues
There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.

Alastair Reid Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner
I do not own a watch and pass the summer without ever knowing the time.

Andre Aciman Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
…warm, intimate feeling that settles around noon on typically clear Roman summer days.

Richard Goodwin The American Condition

Now at Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars. …And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.

Olah Olafsson Restoration
…summer arrived with the most glorious weather imaginable: hot, sunny days and warm nights.


Rules for Writing

All I can say is that I was looking for a certain density of thought. A living voice. A text that would surprise me and take me through a mental adventure. Phillip Lopate

There was an article in the Times last month (7/26/12) on how to write. I thought, I can always use a few hints. The article was written by Colson Whitehead, a writer who I had been led to believe is highly regarded.

Since he is an expert on these matters, I read the article with considerable care, only to discover he was dispensing the same advice I must have read at least a dozen times before. You know, the usual: write what you know; revise, revise revise; “what isn’t said is as important as what is said;” and so on. And then I came to the last “rule,” as Mr.Whitehead calls them, number 11, in fact, where I was informed, “There are no rules.”

A great burst of laughter could be heard for miles around. Oh, but, Colin, what about those ten other rules you so kindly “shared” with the rest of us?

Anyway, I thought the last so-called rule was a blessing. Because I write poorly, spell like a six year old, and no doubt violate every rule established by grammarians and the authorities at the New Yorker.

I do that intentionally or maybe, naturally or more likely because I don’t know how to write, as I try not to write, but to be heard, by someone as if we were sitting together in a room, having a conversation, only I am doing that or trying to do that on the page. Like now.

On two occasions I did take a writing workshop to overcome my glaring deficiencies. Both were really excuses to spend some time in Europe, although both were taught by an esteemed writer who I was certain would come to my assistance.

One year the workshop was taught, if you can call it that, by Philip Lopate, the well-known essayist and editor of the invaluable Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. And Lopate did pass along a number of good suggestions, not rules.

• Build suspense; establish a tension

• Pose a problem

• Be fully honest

• Create a character, turn yourself into one, observe yourself from a distance, use your quirks and contradictions

• Reflect on your life, don’t simply spell it out. Even if you don’t understand it, it is important for an author to try to come to some understanding of the autobiographical facts that are presented ad nauseum in most memoirs.

• An analytic perspective is equally important.

• To think on the page is to engage the reader.

Lopate’s suggestions were refreshing, different, tips that go well beyond Whitehead’s oft-repeated rules. Practicing them is another matter. I still have a long way to go. Obviously.


The Magic of Words

The writer discovers first for himself by moving words around, bringing out surprising new meanings in them through arranging them in never-before-seen combinations. And if he hits upon the perfect combination, a light goes off, and the world will seem a brighter place to him and his readers. Joseph Epstein

Country Names
I am sometimes entranced by a word, by the way it sounds and how it looks on the page. “Burkina Faso.” Yes it is really two words but it describes a single entity. Do you know where it is?

How about its capital? Talk about a word. Ouagadougou. Just how do you pronounce that one? Pop the word in Google’s Translator under the “Detect Language” menu and listen to its smooth sound. Pretty exotic. Yes? And it was correctly identified as French in origin, reflecting Burkina Faso’s colonial heritage.


I must have been down and out a few years ago when I went to see Wordplay, a documentary about the world of crossword puzzlers and the legendary Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. Or just plain fed up with the rubbish playing in the local cinemas.

From the first glimpse of the ever-smiling Will, I too began to smile as he introduced me to a world where there was much to feel good about. The world is primarily the people who construct and play crosswords with such remarkable skill. What a small world, but what talent, what knowledge and what unassuming humor about their gift. Nothing but “Ah, shucks, there’s not much I can do about it.” or “I don’t know how I do it, I just can.”

A refreshing movie, a delightful one for a change, nothing to ponder the moral implications or the madness that surrounds us. How reassuring that not everyone has lost their marbles. Maybe we will get through this after all.

Other’s Words

In The Words of Others, Gary Morson explores the history, the variety, and the multiple uses of quotations. It’s not a book of quotations, as in a unannotated commonplace book, but rather an analysis of the role of quotations in literature, anthologies, and contemporary culture. Through the magic of Kindle’s Highlights, I made note of a number of passages--quotations by authors of some renown, including famous last words and ideas and questions about quotations that Morson discusses in his book.

A wise man once said that ‘no man is ever an island,’ and truer words were never spoken.

Was Adam the only one able to speak without quoting?

As the Talmud testifies, commentary invites ever more commentary. A single gnomic line can come to resonate with centuries of subsequent wisdom.

Anatole France frankly advised, “When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it”). Yes, indeed, but do more. Copy many well-said things. Piece them together. Assimilate them. Make the process of reading them a way to form the mind and shape the soul.

Sometimes phrases we have read or heard become so thoroughly assimilated into our way of speaking or thinking that we no longer recognize them as anything but our own.

Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful. Dorothy Parker

Erasmus saw his amazingly popular anthology as fulfilling the most important purposes of literature, guiding the use of language and conveying valuable lessons. Quotations distilled, and reading them instilled, wisdom.

It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string that ties them together. Montaigne


"How Time Flies"

“Time is memory. Simple as that. Without memory, there can be no time. No before and after, no sooner or later, no now and then. After all, how do we detect what we call the passage of time except by perceiving change? But without memory, all change would be imperceptible. We see the leaves in the forest are turning brown and we think, “autumn already. How time flies.” But that is because we remember how the forest looks in summer. The forest alone, denied our memories could not bear witness to the passage of time.” Christopher Wilkins

When I have something to say, writing takes me away from the clock. I write, its OK, and time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is.

Does time perception vary as a function of motivation? When we feeling good about what we’re doing, does time pass more quickly than when we are in a negative mood?

Einstein observed that the experience of time is largely subjective and most research on time perception attributes this to the effects of positive and negative affective states. But what is the underlying mechanism of this relationship?

In three experiments Philip Gable and Bryon Poole have tried to get a handle the matter. According to their hypothesis, positive affective states vary in motivational intensity with some low in approach motivation (e.g. satisfaction) and others high (e.g. exciting). Similarly, negative avoidance states vary from boring to painful.

In their third and most informative experiment, they tried to separate the approach-avoidance dimension from intensity of arousal. Does high positive motivation shorten the perception of time relative to high-negative states, independent of approach or avoidance?

129 introductory psychology students (97 female, 32 male) participated in the study. They were asked to view high-positive arousal photographs and high-negative arousal pictures. For each picture they were asked to judge whether it was displayed for a short or a long period, with higher proportions indicating a slower perception of time.

The results revealed that high positive motivation shortens time perception relative to high negative motivation. The perception of time was largely determined by positive motivation, rather than either positive (approach) or negative (avoidance) arousal.

So when I’m writing and it is going well, I don’t think a bit about time or what time it is. On the other hand, when it isn’t going well and I am staring at a blank page or deleting one sentence after another and feeling really displeased, I am keenly aware of time and how long it is taking to accomplish something. However, in neither case am I especially aroused.

Of course, the experiments reported by Gale and Poole were conducted in the laboratory, with one method and with college students who participated because they were taking a course (psychology) where participation was a course requirement.

Would the findings occur outside the lab, under different conditions, with a different set of subjects? These are questions that are always important to answer about highly reactive laboratory experiments that are also subject to experimenter biases and a variety of subject hypotheses about what the experimenter expects and their desire not to look foolish.


On A Lazy, Dazy Day in August

Anything can happen on a summer afternoon
On a lazy dazy golden hazy summer afternoon

Lily Tuck

And the sun finally shines upon the Northwest, the days are warm, and the Web is having a summer rally.

A poet reminds us of the long forgotten craft of sending postcards.

While the Spice Girls at the Olympic closing ceremony amused me more than I care to admit, I was far more impressed by word of what the Olympics used to be and could be now without any difficulty.

A psychotherapist suggests that writing and reading poetry can have therapeutic value.

I learned from more than I need to know about England during the last two exhausting weeks, including the fact that people still like to read over there and gather together in groups to talk about its practical value.

Earlier this summer I read about a very special perfect moment experienced by a musician while talking to someone who sounds a lot like someone I know.

New Websites sprout like the dandelions in the grass around here, including one that is so rich in intellectual fare that it has entered the exclusive realm of my Firefox bookmarks.


Expanded Memory

In preliterate cultures, the great sagas and epics were necessarily communal creations committed to tribal memory and chanted under priestly supervision over generations. With the invention of the alphabet, authors no longer depended on communal memory but stored their work on stone, papyrus, or paper. Jason Epstein

More and more now I find myself turning to the Web when I can’t remember something. I don’t remember a person's name or the title of the book she wrote. But the Web remembers and then I remember too.

Sometimes what I am searching for drifts in on its own, usually when I am unprepared or doing something other than trying to recall it. And sometimes this occurs several days after memory failed me, when I’ve totally forgotten what it was that I was even trying to recall.

But I am impatient and have no interest in these “mind pops” and so more and more often I rely upon the Web. I suppose we’ve always depended on other resources to refresh our memories. Nevertheless I always, yes always, feel bad about this. Is my brain turning to mush? Is the dread disease finally consuming me?

So it was with considerable relief that I read Daniel Wegner’s article in the Times last Sunday (8/5/12) suggesting there’s nothing really wrong with checking the Web, that it isn’t a sign of mental deterioration. What good news; I won’t forget that.

He says we all have limited memories, “no one remembers everything.” We ask a friend about something we’ve forgotten. My friend knows everything about the subject I’ve forgotten. My wife asks me where she left her glasses. Since she asks me so often, I always keep track of where her glasses are.

The other night we were watching an old movie and I could not for the life of me remember the name of the actress. I asked her, if she did. She thought for a while and then said, “Emma something.” Immediately I replied, “Emma Thompson.” There we have it: communal memory on the couch.

Each time we draw upon the Web or another person, we only expand our memory. It isn’t that we are becoming overly dependent on these sources or becoming more forgetful. Rather it is an adaptive response to our limited memory capacity.

Wegner refers to this process as “transactive memory.” In introducing the idea he describes it as a “way to understand the group mind….each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally—and then we can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t. In this way we become part of a transactive memory system.”

Isn’t this an example of our increasingly specialized society? We don’t live in a preliterate society referred to by Epstein, where stories were communicated verbally and where it was necessary to rely upon communal memory and our own ability to remember what was spoken, if we were ever to remember anything.

We have all become a great cybermind. As long as we are connected to our machines through talk and keystrokes, we can all be part of the biggest, smartest mind ever. It is only we are trapped for a moment without our Internet link that we return to our own little personal minds, tumbling back to earth from our flotation devices in the crowd.

His essay was like a cathartic therapy session. A feeling of reassurance swept over me, my fear of relying on Goggle or someone else disappeared, and I no longer have to berate myself or feel bad after all about being part of the “great cybermind.”


No Pain, No Gain

Here is how Malcolm Gladwell defines “slack” in his latest New Yorker (7/30/12) essay: Slack--the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance--is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t.”

As an example he compares his experience as a high school runner with that of the early nineteen-eighties distance runner Alberto Salazar. Gladwell gave up competitive running when his fear of what it takes to be among the best grew too overwhelming.

By contrast, Salazar who not only faced the same fear, but almost died from all-out running on two occasions concluded just the opposite.

In his memoir l4 Minutes Salazar writes that he felt “exhilarated” even after doctors thought he was dead after collapsing at the end of the 1978 Falmouth Road Race, “one of the premier road races in the world,” as his temperature reached 107 and was rising.

“My thrill ran deeper; I had learned something from death. I had learned, through the agency of my lifelong prayer, that I wasn’t afraid of death. I realized that this made me different from the people walking by me in the street. More important…it made me different from other runners.”

Gladwell claims that between 17 and 24 Salazar ran on average 105 miles a week (that’s 15 miles every day, through winter storms and blistering hot and humid summers), missing just eleven days of running in that seven-year period. I imagine he wasn’t just running, but running hard during each one of those miles.

Did it take its toll? Yes, according to Gladwell, who claims most “elite distance runners can maintain their form into their early thirties. Salazar stopped competitive racing in his mid-twenties.”

Was that because he pushed himself beyond his limits? While it is surely associated with the way he ran, the only way he could run and win, it is impossible to know if that was the reason he reached his peak comparatively early.

Consider an alternative: Most great distance runners run gracefully, without any apparent effort, almost naturally, like a cheetah racing across the African savannah. In contrast, Salazar “shuffled like an old man,” struggling with everything he had to keep running at full speed.

While Salazar obviously had enormous desire and great talent, it was always accompanied by pain. “The pain of running is like the pain of drowning,” he said. “A kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion.”

Is that kind of pain necessary to be a champion runner? Is it necessary to be superior in any sport or human endeavor? Clearly not. I have no answer to how necessary it is for an elite distance runner.

But I do know that most long-distance runners have said they reach a point during a marathon where they believe they can’t go on any longer, but if they do, they will usually push through that state, get their “second wind” and resume running as before.

Salazar believes his acceptance of pain can be attributed to his father’s deep faith in Catholicism and the demands he placed on Salazar to keep going no matter how painful or exhausted he was. “A Salazar never quits.”


Tin House

Tin House is a literary magazine published every quarter in Portland, Oregon. In the summer issue there were several short stories and poems, two long essays, five book reviews, one culinary memoir and the usual Tin House crossword puzzle. Quite a brainy feast.

The first short story, “The Right Way to End a Story,” was written by Holly Goddard Jones, a writer I’ve never heard of before but after reading her story, I knew I wanted to read everything she’d written.

Juliet had been tending a fantasy about the famous photographer who would be lodging with her at the college’s guest house. She knew that he was older than she – twenty years at least – but that was perhaps a good thing at this point in her life, as recently separated as she was, as recently thirty as she was. An older man, an artist, a jet-setter in (she imagined) khaki trousers and a vest: she’d seen his self-portrait on the Internet and felt very kindly toward him.

Juliet writes good sentences, but her stuff’s just too domestic for most men to care about. Men don’t care about these relationship stories she does. And you know who edits the journals that are worth a shit? Men.

A few pages further on is a short story, “Dolly,” by Alice Munro of all people, perhaps the short story writer of the century. It is about an older couple coming to grips with mortality and emotions that are immune to age.

There had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Jackson being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.

…no lies, after all, are as strong as the lies we tell ourselves.

Then there are several fine book reviews, including a long essay, “The Merritt Parkway Novel,” by Gerald Howard in which he reviews Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, each of which takes place in the suburban Connecticut countryside, not far from the Merritt Parkway.

Paul Charles Griffin writes about buying a used Raymond Chandler novel on Amazon when he needs to decide whether to order a copy rated “Like New” or “Very Good” or “Acceptable”. On principle, he never buys one given an “Acceptable” rating but when the seller claimed that his satisfaction “was his top priority,” he succumbed.

Pleased to have someone even remotely concerned with my happiness, I went with the “Acceptable” rating and waited for the mailman to arrive.

And then he writes about Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, and quite delightfully about reading the yellow highlights and marginal notes in the used copy. They are clever and he thinks they were written by a young Indian, Sanjay.

It was as if I were reading the book with him, as if we were discussing it together in a book club…my excursion into the mind of Sanjay K reminded me of what reading is all about, looking to another person’s soul, hearing his thoughts, feeling his feeling and seeing the world through his eyes…This is why reading has always been the most important thing to me. It allows me a reprieve from my private universe, allows me to be somebody else for an hour.

I could go on for a while longer about other book reviews, essays, and the culinary memoir, as well as the solution to the Tin Hat crossword. But I will leave it to you to track down a copy if you’re interested. I do believe it will be worth whatever it costs, new, used (very good, or acceptable).


Marvis Gallant Journals

For years I was an avid reader of Mavis Gallant’s "Letters from Paris" that appeared in the New Yorker. They were my introduction to Europe and to the city that for a while became my first and final destination each time I went there.

Throughout the 60 years Gallant lived in Europe she kept a daily journal. They are her accounts of the many changes in Europeans and their cultures after World War 2. The war ended in 1945. My first trip to Europe was nine years later. Rubble was still on the streets of London and almost every city in Germany city I visited. People had scarcely any money and in Madrid, where she lived for a while, Franco was still in power.

A friend of Gallant’s, Frances Kierman, is currently editing the vast, mostly handwritten entries for what will be the first of several volumes of her daily journal entries. Gallant is about to turn 90, has been quite ill recently and is doing her best in working with Kierman to recall some of the incidents she wrote about.

Jhumpa Lahiri recently met Gallant to conduct an interview for Granta magazine. After their meeting, Lahiri wrote, "I had never met a writer who has inspired me so greatly, and towards whom I felt such enormous debt."

Several excerpts from her journals were recently published in the July 9th & 16th double issue of the New Yorker. They are drawn from four months 1952 when she was struggling to survive as a writer in Madrid.

I live on bread wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is govered by the price of mortadella.

When I think of my life before I came here, it is like someone else’s life, something I am being told. I can’t write anyone. At the moment I haven’t the postage, but even if I had, what to say?

Sunshine and little to eat (potatoes and potatoes). To the Prado, that small container overflowing with good things. Back to Goya. I go back and back and still he is haunting and terrifying.

No one is as real to me as people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them, as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.

Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way long the buildings across the street. He reaches a street crossing; everyone watches, silent, and lets him walk full on into the side of a building. When he has recovered (for a moment he was like a butterfy beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away.

I hang on the end of hunger. We are all as pale as paper. I can’t wear my blouses because they are dirty and I haven’t soap for them and for me and it has to be me.

Today I have no money and no food.

Told Frederick [a friend] I no longer believe in the novel. He said, “Write it whether you believe in it or not.” It is like watching a plant die.

Chambrun [her agent] has send four hundred dollars and says he will send the rest later. The first thing I bought was good white bread.


What to Believe?

You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.” Abraham Lincoln*

The rapid fall of Jonah Lehrer reflects a problem with all secondary accounts of scientific findings—on the Web, in the press, in books, conversations, etc. You can’t always believe them.

Lehrer was forced to resign from his position as a blogger for the New Yorker when it was discovered he had fabricated several passages from a purported interview with Bob Dylan and had reused material previously published on his blog at Wired magazine. Having read those blogs, I was quite puzzled to see them once again on the New Yorker’s digital pages.

Since then his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, has been withdrawn by its publisher, and Wired magazine, where he had blogged before coming to the New Yorker is reviewing all of his previous posts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is asking bookstores to returned their unsold copies for a full refund and the same offer has been made to readers who purchased a print copy of the book.

From a star in the blogosphere, Lehrer has almost overnight been ostracized to a writers no-man’s land, to be shunned as if he carried around some dread virus. One wonders what will become of him.

Absent the original report in a peer-reviewed (ideally) journal, it is hard, no, impossible to determine the reliability of the kind of secondary accounts Lehrer published. They could be subject to any number of reporting biases, errors, outright deception, or simple fudging.

Apparently this was true in several and perhaps others yet discovered in the blogs and books of Jonah Lehrer, whose popularity was not unlike that of Malcolm Gladwell. And it may also be true of the several blogs I have written about Lehrer’s posts and books that are even further away from the original sources than Lehrer’s.

I first started reading Lehrer on his blog, the Frontal Cortex. I liked the way he attempted to integrate scientific findings with ordinary experiences. Eventually, his blogs became more neuroscience and less psychological and, in turn, I didn’t follow him as often as I used to, as I’ve never been particularly enamored of neuroscience and its presumption of “at last we know.”

I knew all the evidence he cited from experimental studies was a secondary account, but I had no reason to believe he fabricated anything or distorted the findings one way or another. Therein lies the problem of a reporter, like myself, or a reader. How can you trust such accounts when you don’t have the original research upon which it is based or even know how to interpret it if you did?

When I was a social psychologist, I uniformly went to the original studies I talked about in class or cited in my research. I read them as carefully as I could, tried to interpret the increasingly complex statistical analyses, and checked to see that the investigator’s conclusions didn’t go beyond the data. I can assure you this was never easy. And how often have you read lately about researchers who have fudged on their data or even in some cases actually made it up?

Apparently Lehrer did fudge and did distort and did also invent what he claimed to be true. Should I remove the several blogs where I have cited his work? No, I’ll leave them up for a while and suggest you read them, as well as all other secondary accounts of the research I discuss with considerable caution.

* Note: The Abraham Lincoln quotation was drawn from Jonah Lehrer’s blog, "Deception" written in November, 2006.


Mr. Keatley's Commonplace Book

Most commonplace books, and there aren’t many of those, are private collections of notable passages that readers have collected over the years. Very few have been published and those that have are primarily the collections of well-known individuals—Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, W. H. Auden, Alex Guinness, etc. However, I suspect a relatively modest number have been published privately, probably less today than in previous centuries. Who can ever know these things?

From the earliest days of the commonplace book tradition, copying noteworthy passages by hand, usually into one or more notebooks, has been the preferred method of transcription. The introduction of the typewriter and computer and more recently the several methods of electronic recording have made inroads on this practice.

A considerable number of “commonplace books” and quotation lists are now appearing on the Web. I discuss a few here. While these electronic analogues of their printed forerunners have probably not changed the character of commonplace books, they have surely broadened the audience for what had become a largely private activity.

One of the most usual of those that I’ve read about lately is On Opening Mr. Keatley’s Commonplace Book by Brendan Bruce. I am completely in the dark about the identity, real or fictional, of Mr. Keatley or Brendan Bruce. But here it is, his commonplace book, formatted as a photographic portfolio on a Website, known as "blub" for some reason.

You can also sample a few of its pages and buy a paper or Kindle version from the ubiquitous Amazon.com. Regardless, on each page is a list of the passages that Mr. Keatley or Mr. Bruce deemed worthy of collecting from what is apparently a rather vast and wide ranging set of books.

No reason is given why the passages were selected, nor are they annotated or organized by theme, which I guess is true of most commonplace books. Nevertheless, here is a sampling from the 15 pages available on the Web. Might this kind of thing be the Christmas gift of 2012 for a fair number of commonplacers?

An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia. Thomas Babington Macaulay

Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth. Joseph Joubert

Judge and be prepared to be judged. Ayn Rand

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries. Joseph Addison

Those who air at great deeds must also suffer greatly. Plutarch

Destiny: n. A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure. Anatole France

Bring your desires down to your present means. Increase them only when your increased means permit. Aristotle

I have never learned anything from any man who agreed with me. Dudley Field Malone

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Dick the Butcher, King Henry VI Part II

Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re surprised by it. Paul Wolfowitz

Money is like the sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. W. Somerset Maugham

What I want is men who will support me when I am in the wrong. William, Lord Melbourne

Reports are not self-executive. Florence Nighingale.