We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.
If you are what you read, then I’m confused. A lawyer’s shelves are filled with law books; a doctor’s with medical journals. Tolkien’s shelves were chock with Old- and Middle-English. I look through mine and find no common theme.
To search for myself among my books, I ventured to take a single shelf and look at its contents to see if they were in any way a mirror in which I could discover my own physiognomy. I didn’t want to pick a shelf that was organized. I have cookbooks here, poetry there, a rack or three of Latin and Greek translations over there. There is one section of all of D.H. Lawrence, another of Henry Miller. Elsewhere, there are art books and Hindu literature. There are sections of history and others of Peterson guides. But in the bedroom, beside the bed, is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that collects the odds and ends that I have been gathering and not yet classified, or not returned, after reading, to their rightful homes. I picked a single layer of that literary cake and investigated what I found there. Make of them what you will.
Starting at one end of the shelf:
—The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. VI – 1665, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, University of California Press, 1972
One of the great horndogs of all times, Samuel Pepys kept a diary, in a peculiar sort of shorthand, from 1660 to 1669 and records much of historical significance, including the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665-66.
“But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
— Diary, Aug. 16, 1665
A few days later, on Aug. 22: “I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead bodye therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it — but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing — this disease making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
The volume on my shelf covers only 1665, but I have collections that cover the sense of it all. And the overriding sense you get of our Mr. Pepys is a man concerned with money and business, the conduct of government, dinners with fellow bureaucrats, the love he felt for his wife, and the frequent copulations he maintained with his maid, his friends’ maids, their wives, daughters, and the fishmonger’s wives and daughters. How he had time for business and government sometimes seems a marvel. How many times does he write about seeing his maid at the scullery, bent over the dishes, and he lifts her skirts and has his way while she wipes the platters.
One day, he was surprised by his wife as he sat with the maid on his lap. He writes that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hand under her coats; and indeed, I was with my hand in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also…” They had to fire the poor maid, but that didn’t stop Pepys from continuing to see her.
—The Orange Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, Dover Publications, 1968
I used to own all of Lang’s Fairy books, in all colors. But I gave most of them away to my granddaughters when they were still wee bairns. I don’t think they ever really took to them — the books had no touchscreens. The Orange Fairy Book is the only one I can find now. I loved them more for the line-drawing illustrations than the text by such artists as Howard Pyle and H.J. Ford. I didn’t discover these fairy tales until I was in my 20s. My childhood had no such fantasy — when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember telling my parents I didn’t like fiction because “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” I wuz a idjut. But in my 20s, I came across Lang in used book stores and collected as many colors as I could. He published 12 books, with different colors. The Blue Fairy Book and the Red were my favorites, they were also the first published. They contain some of the more familiar Grimms’ tales, Arabian Nights stories and Norwegian folktales.
The Orange Fairy Book widens the scope to African tales and some from India, in addition to the European stories usually found. It was the third from the last entry into Lang’s series and was published in 1906. After it came Olive and Lilac. My original discovery of them came at a time when Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, was current — before he was found largely to be a fraud. But his central point, that fairy tales helped guide a child through the development of mind and personality, still seems accurate. I feel disadvantaged, at least a little, by not having them as a part of my childhood.
The series was published in beautifully designed paperbacks by Dover Publications, the golden treasury of lost books that became my source for so many of the books that guided my intellectual development, from Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera to Design of Active Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Dover now stays in business selling upper-grade coloring books, kiddie stickers and “thrift editions” of classics in the public domain. You can still purchase Lang’s Fairy Books from Dover.
—The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner Classics, 1996
Other than the short stories, which are often marvelous, The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway I can abide. I reread it every few years and enjoy the hell out of it. I did read Death in the Afternoon a couple of years ago and enjoyed that, too, although in a sort of ironic way, as if it were a parody of the man.
“There are only two proper ways to kill bulls with the sword and muleta… A great killer must love to kill; unless he feels it is the best thing he can do, unless he is conscious of its dignity and feels that it is its own reward, he will be incapable of the abnegation that is necessary in real killing. The truly great killer must have a sense of honor and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary bullfighter.”
I learned more about bullfighting than I ever hoped to. I remember as a kid when local TV in New York used to show Mexican bullfights — they didn’t kill the bulls in Mexico. Stations were really hurting for things to broadcast in those early years. They also ran a bunch of jai-alai. And the Saturday Night Fights, with Bill Stern. But I’m getting off point. I also have a fat book of his wartime journalism, Byline: Ernest Hemingway, which is “damn good reporting,” as he might have characterized it. And even in the books I can’t get through, I still find sentences and paragraphs of tremendous power and grace. He was a great writer who wrote bad books.
But Sun Also Rises has all the fizz and punch that Hemingway is famous for, but before he became Papa — or what I call “Ham-ingway.” The Sun’s excesses feel like a document of its post-war times. Later Hemingway feels like a document of his own almost comic and self-regarding toxic masculinity (perfectly skewered in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). I have three copies of Sun in the house. I still have the old Scribner paperback that I first read some 40 years ago; then there is the one from this shelf. But I recently bought the new Hemingway Library Edition, with early drafts and deleted chapters and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway. These last two are both beautiful book designs and immaculately printed.
—I Kid You Not, Jack Paar with John Reddy, Little, Brown and Co., 1960
Before there was Stephen Colbert, before there was David Letterman, before Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. He ran The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 to 1962. He was a squirrelly man with a labile mind, but maybe a bit touchy. In his autobiography, named for his catchphrase, I Kid You Not, his co-author describes him: “Explaining Jack Paar is not easy. He is the world’s tallest elf. He is a paradox and meeting him can be like smoking a filter-tip firecracker … a man whose tranquilizer has been spiked … a tendency to make sudden U-turns in tunnels … broods over the fact that the Indians always lose in TV Westerns … as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”
I found the book recently in a library sales shelf and picked it up for a dollar, thinking I would weave nostalgia over my childhood television past. And let’s be honest, this is no Great Gatsby — it is a fairly standard celebrity book, full of potted anecdotes and famous names. Still, fairly entertaining for all that.
“I once asked Zsa Zsa if she thought love was important. ‘Yas, I theenk luff is the most imbortant theeng in a vooman’s life,’ she said throatily. ‘A vooman should keep on marrying and marrying until she finds luff.’”
Most of the book consists of a set-up paragraph, explaining a situation, followed by a punchline, either by Paar, or more often quoted from Charley Weaver, Alexander King, Genevieve or Oscar Levant. Paar had a stable of guest-star conversationalists and unlike today’s late night, which is an endless series of stars huckstering their latest project, Paar’s guests actually engaged in conversation.
Sometimes, a book just breezes by without a thought in its head — or mine.
—Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
I heard Emily Bernard speaking on C-Span and found her mesmerizing. There are two main aspects to her book, both entirely engaging. The most obvious is her discussion of race. She grew up in the South, got her Ph.D. from Yale, married a white man from the North, adopted two babies from Ethiopia and teaches in New England, so, with all this input, there is not a single or blindered approach to her subject, but a willingness to see from all points of view. There is not a droplet of cant in her thinking or writing, but the honest thoughts of a sensitive individual.
The other is the story of her stabbing. She was attacked by a stranger, a white man, with a knife. He was a schizophrenic, acting on impulse and he attacked six other people in that coffee shop. “I was not stabbed because I was black, but I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations. … There was no connection between us … yet we were suddenly and irreparably bound by a knife, an attachment that cost us both: him, his freedom; me, my wholeness.”
It is a book beautifully written. Its prose is both clean and evocative. I don’t believe I found a single cliche in its 223 pages.
—The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
When my wife died, three years ago, I was buried in a paralyzing grief. We had been together 35 years and, as far as either of was concerned, we were a single entity. Didion’s book was recommended to me and I dived in.
It is, of course, well written — it is Didion, after all — and it is affecting. I felt a definite kinship with her. If you have lost someone that close, it is like a soldier having been through a war and knowing only those who have shared the experience can genuinely understand. You can appreciate the sympathy of friends, but you know they are outside the event. I got letters and e-mails from one dear friend who had lost a lifetime companion, and even when she didn’t address the loss directly, there was a tacit understanding. Those letters meant more to me than any other kind words.
But, having read Didion, I had to say that my experience was different from hers. The “magical thinking” she writes about is the feeling that, even though she knows consciously that her husband is dead, there was an autonomic expectation that he might suddenly come through the door: The space of the real world, and the inner space of the mind were out of synch.
But for me, when I witnessed the life cease being generated by my wife’s ailing body, she simply was no more. The instant she stopped breathing, her skin began to cool under my touch; the flame was extinguished, and I never had even the unconscious hope that it had all been a dream, and that maybe she was still alive. No. Gone. Ewig… Ewig… Ewig.
A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994
My brother- and sister-in-law are crazy about opera. When I visit them, we often watch DVDs of them, and usually the operas few others appreciate, such as Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Love for Three Oranges. I used to be an opera critic for my newspaper (I was critic for a lot of things — born a critic, not made one). And they gave me this book, which is a comic look at all the repertoire operas. This is not a book you read cover to cover, but dip into for a good laugh and a bit of insight.
“Death is extremely common [in opera] and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely… the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in [opera] where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered… The period [of death] can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death, since the victim is likely to seize any opportunity to break into song on the way to the block.”
I used to own Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas in a beat-up and yellow-paged copy that I used for reference when I was writing. Nowadays, all those reference books that crowded my carrel at the newspaper have been replaced with Wikipedia at my fingertips. And the sodden reverence that Cross brought to the genre has been happily exchanged for Sir Denis’s leavening.
The book is 955 pages long, so I can’t claim to have finished it, or that I ever will. But I have read all of my favorite operas and Gesamptkunstwerks and had a good yuk.
—And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara…, Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2017
There are so many ways to die, outside of mortal illness or gunshot wounds. And this book, with a chromed edge of irony, recounts some of the more notable. If you are ever curious about what would happen if you were swallowed by a whale, shot from a cannon or go barreling over Niagara Falls, then even the title of the book should pull you in.
Each of 45 chapters begins with “What would happen if…” If you were buried alive; if you were hit by a meteorite; if your elevator cable broke; if you were sacrificed in a volcano; if you ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster. (On that last, many things might kill you. “After 60-some cookies, the gaseous side effects of digestion might push the pressure of your stomach beyond its physical capacity. It could explode violently and distribute its fatal chocolate chip cookie content throughout your innards. In other words, death by burping.”}
This is clearly a great book for bathroom reading: short, punchy chapters. Like eating potato chips, reading just one will be a problem. Also: Comes with scientific footnotes to witness for the authors’ predictions.
—Latest Reading, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015
Clive James knew he was dying when he compiled Latest Readings. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010 and decided to spend his remaining time reading and rereading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
If that sounds like a downer, then you haven’t read Clive James. A more irrepressible mind and curiosity would be hard to come by. This book came out in 2015 and he died in 2019, which means he had a good nine years of reading to pursue. Having announced his impending demise in 2010, he admitted at the time of this book an embarrassment at still being alive. He described himself as “near to death but thankful for life.” And after his Latest Readings, he still had seven more books to publish, one called Sentenced to Life.
He was a major wit (he described the muscled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “brown condom filled with walnuts”) and could toss off the bon mot as flippantly as Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker.
One essay is specifically “On Wit,” and discusses the ability of Abba Eban to say much with little. He quotes Eban on another politician, “He is a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas,” and “Yasser Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In his essay on early Hemingway, he says of The Sun Also Rises, “In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced.” There is a second essay, later on, called “Hemingway at the End,” which begins:
“Starting with Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house.”
I miss James. He’s one of those writers who, even when I disagree with him violently, I still enjoy reading. Luckily, he’s all over YouTube.
—Selected Writing of Herman Melville: Complete Short Stories; Typee; Billy Budd, Foretopman, Herman Melville, Random House Modern Library, 1952
I have always been attracted to writers word by word and sentence by sentence. There are wonderful writers whose prose is clear as water and you never notice it flowing by with hardly a gurgle. They tell their stories and you turn the pages, delighted to find out what happens next. I remember being in a bookstore once and picking up James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. I had always avoided him, thinking he was a talented hack who pumped out books as thick as phonebooks. I thought I might read a page or two to get the flavor of his writing, but only a few moments later, I realized I was 30 pages in and had to stop because the store was closing. I was completely immersed in the story and unaware I was actually reading.
Melville is not like that. You chew on each tasty word and dine on his sentences. I fell in love with Moby Dick, but had the hardest time finishing it, not because I became bored, but because every time I picked up the book anew, I started from the beginning again. “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read “Loomings” more than a hundred times.
Before I ever finished Moby Dick, I read Israel Potter, Typee, Omoo and The Confidence Man. But what I kept coming back to, over and over, was this Modern Library edition of his selected writings: The Piazza Tales; Billy Budd and Typee. If given the chance, I will read I and My Chimney out loud at a dinner party. The Encantadas enchanted me; Benito Cereno moved me; Bartleby — Ah humanity.
Melville’s prose is thicker than Southern chicken gravy. It always had a spice of irony in it. It can be comic; it can be tragic. Often both. The sentences can be long as freight trains or short as shunting boxcars. There is always a slightly distracted sensibility behind them.
“When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza — a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters.”
Melville breaks every one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, especially the part about avoiding “hooptedoodle.” Everything Leonard denounces is every reason I love reading. And Melville is the absolute emperor of hooptedoodle. Sometimes, we never ever get to the point.
—Classical Persian Literature, A.J. Arberry, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967
Sometimes, you are moving through the used bookstore too fast. It is a vast buffet of things you want to grab and take home. And sometimes, you grab a title you don’t take enough time to read carefully. I was visiting brother- and sister-in-law and went to a used bookstore the size of a Safeway. I saw a book spine with “Classical Persian Literature” on it and scooped it up. It was only when I got home that I discovered there was precious little classical Persian literature in it, but was, instead, a dry history of Persian literature.
I’m sure it is a wonderful history, and will let me know the minute differences between 13th century and 14th century writings from Iran. But the prose has all the dust of scholarship about it. I have not been able to crack into it; it pushes me away. I wanted poetry and I got bricks. I’m sure, also, that Mr. Arthur John Arberry was quite knowledgable, probably one of the world leaders. But I keep this volume around purely as a non-chemical soporific.
—A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of this Choicest Writings, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982
Henry Louis Mencken was an often detestable human being, with gender and racial views bordering on the rabid. But he wrote like a dream. I envy his style like few others, and will gobble up anything I can find that he published.
I have all six volumes of his aptly titled Prejudices, and all three of his autobiographies, to say nothing of the hefty three volumes of The American Language and I have devoured them like peanut-butter cups. When I couldn’t get enough Mencken, having finished all these, I asked Amazon for a copy of his 1949 anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Unfortunately, a good deal of it is reprinted from the Prejudices and memoirs, but enough is new that the book kept me amused for a week or more. And I can dip back in for a recharge at any time. They are all eminently re-readable.
“The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?”
And the next essay, he continues: “I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time of other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.”
Reading Mencken is a mix of smiles and winces. A clever turn of phrase here, a rolling diatribe careening along like a freight train, a panegyric or philippic — then, you bump up against some gratuitous generalization about “the negroes” or “the Jews,” and you pull up short. These were common prejudices at the time, but they sour the tongue now.
You are forced to remember that Mencken also argued for the American acceptance of Jewish refugees in the years before WWII, and lashed out at lynchings and bigotry, apparently not noticing the beam in his own eye. In addition, he had close friendships with both African-Americans and Jews. It was only in the abstract he denigrated them, not that such makes it acceptable.
Mencken also disapproved of democracy. In this, he seems prescient. “As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
—High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 1995
The most recent book I’ve finished is Kingsolver’s collection of essays, mixing science and autobiography and more than anything, common sense written with aromatic and redolent words. My first ex-wife found it a few months ago in a used bookstore and bought it for me, thinking I might enjoy it. She was right.
I confess I have not read any of Kingsolver’s fiction. I’m a bit slow on keeping up with contemporary novels — I’m still too often stuck on Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne — but these essays are infectiously written.
“I have been gone from Kentucky a long time. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: take out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. Something like that has happened to my memories, too, particularly of the places and people I can’t go back and visit because they are gone. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers. They’re snapshots of memory for me now, of equivocal focus, loaded with emotion, undisturbed by anyone else’s idea of the truth. The schoolhouse’s plaster ceilings are charted with craters like maps of the moon and likely to crash down without warning. The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire. The weary wooden staircases, worn shiny smooth in a path up their middles, wind up to an unknown place overhead where the heavy-footed eighth graders changing classes were called ‘the mules’ by my first-grade teacher, and believing her, I pictured their sharp hooves on the linoleum.”
Over and over Kingsolver metamorphoses physical objects into emotion — not overt, heart-on-sleeve, but recollection, affection, loss — and makes the persuasive case that emotion is more central to being human than paltry thought. Or rather, that when seen properly, thought and emotion are the very same thing.
—Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism — A Norton Critical Edition, John Milton, edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1975
I’m afraid people look at me funny when I tell them how much I enjoy reading Milton. They scrunch their eyes and wonder if they should step back slowly. But Milton is wonderful; he is fun. And he tells a whopping good yarn.
I have four copies of Paradise Lost. The first is a compact blue Oxford Standard Authors edition from 1925. When my girlfriend-at-the-time and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in the early 1970s, it was this Milton I tossed into my knapsack for the trip. Yes, I took Milton to the woods. Then there is the larger paperback with the famous Gustave Doré illustrations. And a two-volume complete Milton in a presentation set from 1848, bound in leather, that was a birthday present from my late espoused saint. And then, there is this Norton Critical Edition paperback that I keep near my bed. Its advantage is the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page. Some pages have more note than text. I am a little put off that these notes are designed for students and that those students need to be told that “cherub” is singular of “cherubim” or that “pernicious” means “destructive.”
When I read Milton, I hear in my mind’s ear the same rich and thunderous diapason I hear in J.S. Bach’s organ music. Whole rolling chords and pedal tones. Politicians often attempt rhetorical speech in order to sound more impressive and authoritative, but they always sound phony and pompous, like Foghorn Leghorn. But Milton is the real thing: Language with the weight of 2000 years of background. Yes, he treats English as a baby brother to Latin and does damage to standard grammar to contort his sentence structure. But in return, he gets a language more powerful than any poet before or since.
“Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down/ To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”
How can you not love such language: “Round he throws his baleful eyes.”
Perhaps it actually helps that I have no dogs in this fight. I am not a Christian. I can read the Iliad with pleasure and not believe in the Olympians; I can read the Mahabharata without thinking that Krishna or Ganesh are real. The myth of Paradise Lost is compelling, even without being dogma.
—-The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Fenton Bresler, Stein and Day, 1985
Georges Simenon was the creator of Inspector Maigret, but the real mystery is how he managed to write so many books, while also diddling so many women. He wrote nearly 500 novels, some whipped off in as short a time as a week. He could, when deadline pressed, write 60 pages a day. The women are not accurately counted.
Seventy-five of those novels and 28 short stories feature Inspector Jules Maigret, the pipe smoking and uxorious chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. The books have been made into many movies and TV series, including 52 episodes for French television starring Bruno Cremer and a dozen in English starring Michael Gambon. I have seen them all; I am a Maigret addict. I have also read handfuls of the books, too. They read fast and rivetingly.
They aren’t really mysteries, though. In most, the reader learns fairly early who the culprits are and the books have their raison d’etre in the finely drawn character studies of their dramatis personae. They really are novels more than your standard mysteries. No suspects are gathered in the last chapter while the detective unmasks the villain. And, indeed, Simenon has written many non-Maigret novels, also with their catchy populations.
“They do not contain much spine-chilling suspense,” writes biographer Fenton Bresler. “They are dark, taut studies of human beings pushed to the limit of their characters, explored with such deep instinctive knowledge of human nature that they have become part of the syllabus of university examinations, and post-graduate students write learned theses devoted to them.”
“Yet, for all their sombre value and consummate craftsmanship, they have nearly all been written at breakneck speed in not much more than a week — with, at the end, a compulsive need to indulge in a veritable orgy of sexual activity as ‘a necessary hygienic measure,’ It is here, with sex, that we have our first inkling that the ‘phenomenon’ is also a mystery and the story of Simenon’s own life is as dark and compelling as any of his novels — if only we can get at the truth.”
—Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe, Random House Modern Library, 1929
Asheville, North Carolina, is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 miles to the east, the escarpment drops off to the flatlands. The way up the hill from Old Fort to Asheville is now Interstate 40, an artery which runs from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif. In North Carolina it runs from the Atlantic Coastal Plain through the Piedmont, with Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and past Asheville to the Smoky Mountains before hitting Tennessee near Dollywood. But before the Interstate, the looping way up the hill was a gravel road that roughly parallels the old railroad line. In 1880, William Oliver Wolfe took a stage coach up the hill to Asheville to set up his stonecutting business.
His son, Thomas, fictionalized that trip in the opening chapter of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. In the novel, Old Fort becomes Old Stockade and Asheville becomes Altamont. His fictionalized father, Oliver Gant, gets into a coach that climbs its way up the face of the Blue Ridge. “His destination was the little town of Altamont, 24 miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver’s spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air; The range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: They were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
“Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.”
I have driven that same road many times, avoiding the interstate as less interesting. The railroad that was being constructed while Oliver rode the coach, is now finished and it loops up in switchbacks mostly parallel to the gravel road. You see it peeking through the trees here and there. And I have driven it in October when the season matches that of the book. There is something uncanny about seeing fiction turned palpable, about driving through the trees as if you were driving through prose.
—Persian and Chinese Letters, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson; and The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith, M Walter Dunne, 1901
I have always loved old books. The letterpress text is textural, embedded into the paper and you can run your finger over the words and feel the bumpiness. There is the smell of the old paper itself. And title pages often have border designs in colored ink, or engraved scrolls. In the older books, there are those long “S” figures that each looks like an “F.” The volumes are beautiful objects, well worthy beyond their content.
I own several books from before 1750 and more from the 19th century, including my trusty History of the Earth and Animated Nature, by Oliver Goldsmith (my copy is from 1825). And there is a History of Redemption on a Plan Entirely Original Exhibiting the Gradual Discovery and Accomplishment of the Divine Purposes in the Salvation of Man; Including a Comprehensive View of Church History and the Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies by “the late reverend Jonathan Edwards” from 1793, with its stretched leather binding still intact. (They loved long titles back then; it’s part of their charm.) And there is a complete reprint of Addison and Steeles Spectator from around the time of the American Revolution (it is falling apart and missing its title page, but the latest date mentioned in it is 1776). I love them all.
Goldsmith also wrote a satire on English society and culture called The Citizen of the World, purportedly a series of letters written by a Chinese visitor, Lien Chi, who is mystified at some of the British habits and mores he found. Goldsmith’s book was inspired by a similar one by Baron de Montesquieu, called the Persian Letters, from 1721, in which two fictional Persians leave their seraglio to travel through France and send back letters describing what they found.
“Coffee is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: At least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.”
My volume is a translation and reprint from 1901, and a so-called “de Luxe Edition, printed by M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, Washington & London. It isn’t the greatest reading, but it is a handsome volume.
—The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
Some time ago, on a vacation trip, I came across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was all there was to read where we were staying and I admit to being somewhat embarrassed to read a book about a pedophile, and worse, from his self-justifying point of view, but I also have to admit, it was the best-written book I had come across in ages. The writing was singular; verbal fireworks. I have never come across anything like it. The simple act of reading was fun. There is no other word for it. It was a delight to move from one word to the next, each brighter and crisper and more ironically charged than the last. Lolita is a great book. Not that I want anyone to catch me reading it.
I later picked up his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and loved it, too, although it didn’t have the crashing verbal tides of Lolita. Still, it was compelling.
And so, I found this giant, thick, heavy compilation of Nabokov’s short stories. At 660 pages, it contains 65 stories, some written in English, some translated from Russian. I have admired the spine of this book on my shelf for some time, but found it daunting to pull out and open up.
“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favorable opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas — a million times the reader’s average age. In the telescopic field of one’s fancy, through the prism of one’s tears, any particularities it presents should be no more striking than those of existing planets. A rosy globe, marbled with dusky blotches, it is one of the countless objects diligently revolving in the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”
How can any scrupulous writer not admit to being in awe of a phrase like, “the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”? Or, “the telescopic field of one’s fancy” and “the prism of one’s tears.”?
Perhaps one day, I will work up the gumption to tackle the whole book. After all, I made it through Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This should be child’s play in comparison.
And so, I think over what I have excavated from this layered wooden trove and wonder anew: Who is this who drew magnetically such a heterogeneous collection of mental filings. Spiegel im Spiegel.
Walk into any used bookstore — or if you can find it, a new bookstore — and you will find an entire aisle devoted to cookbooks. Perhaps there may be more romance novels, if it’s a used paperback store, but in most, cookbooks take up more space than anything else. Of the making of cookbooks, there is no end.
Reading a good cookbook is a pleasure and collecting them is a vice. When I got married, 40 years ago, two collections joined as one. Over the years, many have gone to feed the shelves of used bookstores and now I’m whittled down to the most essential ones. But I still love them all; many I have let go I have since rebought.
But not all cookbooks are of the same ilk. There are four distinct classes of cookbooks and they offer differing rewards.
The first group are the recipe books, and they make up by far the largest class, maybe even 80 percent of the total. Their purpose is to give homemakers directions to the preparation of the standard day-to-day fare of the family table, or to instruct how to make more exotic dishes from exotic cultures. There may be intercalary text, a few stories or some background information, but the heart of such a book is the individual recipe, divided into an ingredients list and a procedure directive.
We can divide these up into actual bound books and the plethora of booklets and pamphlets, many of them promotional items.
Among the books we run from the big comprehensive volumescovering everything from soup to roasts and desserts, to the specialty book, such as have Christmas recipes, or baking secrets, or how-to for Chinese food.
And each cook has one of these compendiums as her primary source: either Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the Gold Cookbook, or the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book: America’s #1 Cookbook Since 1930.
And most have a collection, too, of smaller books — a McCall’s paperback on pastries or a Southern Living collection of casseroles. Such books, often mere pamphlets, have been produced at least since the end of the 19th century.
I have lived in the South for a good portion of my life, and have come to love, even need, Southern cooking, from barbecue to Brunswick stew, from fried okra to hushpuppies. There have been Southern cookbooks from way back, when it was still OK to use an African-American mammy on the cover. Edna Lewis is a great step upwards. I have owned three editions of Mrs. Dull’s book.
As American food culture expanded, beginning in the 1970s, the range of cookbooks of exotic cuisine expanded. Julia Child taught us French; Joyce Chen taught us Chinese; Madhur Jaffrey brought us India and Diana Kennedy made us long for varieties of chile pepper we had never heard of and never even imagined.
Before then, most cookbooks were good ol’ American family fare, andmagazines gave out monthly ideas for how to turn loaf bread, Jell-O packets, a can of soup, and some Shake ’n Bake chicken into a meal fit for a junior assistant vice president in charge of sales.
And from the 1920s through the 1960s, various corporations put out pamphlet-size promotional books with recipes for their products. A Jell-O cookbook; a Diamond Walnut cookbook; a Gold Medal Flour cookbook; a Sunbeam Mixmaster cookbook — hundreds, maybe thousands of them.
For anyone interested in graphic design and typography, these promotional cookbooks are a treasure trove of historical fashion. They popped up first in the years before World War I, became popular again in the 1920s, served the war effort with helpful kitchen shortcuts in the 1940s, and became hip and cartoonish in the 1960s. Each era has its look and seasoned eyes can date one from its cover alone, to an accuracy of less than five years.
A subgenre of the recipe book is the celebrity cookbook. Many of these have a short shelf life, as movie and TV stars come and go.
And television series and movies with sequels spawn similar entries. Want a Star Wars cookbook? There are at least six of them.
A Harry Potter Cookbook? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? Outlander?
A kind of gender spread from boy-aimed Star Trek to girl-aimed Gilmore Girls, with Doctor Who in the middle, pitched to both.
For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions.
Every church has, at some point, published a spiral-bound book of the favorite recipes of its parishioners, usually with much use of crushed corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup.
But I’m getting sidetracked. I love my collection of these ephemera, not for their recipes, which I never use, but for their design and typography. They are an unnoticed art gallery. Others find the same in classic cars or vintage clothing, but for me, it’s the changing trends in publishing, and the cheapest source of old book design comes on the cookbook shelves of your favorite used bookstore.
The second class of cookbook is the instructional — those books whose purpose to to show how to bone a chicken or julienne a carrot. The most famous is probably Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, with their photographic step-by-step.
Of course, the boundaries of these classes is blurry. Most procedurals also contain recipes, and even the big recipe collections give some help in the basic techniques. But it is a question of emphasis. You can look at Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a roster of gourmet recipes, but its greatest virtue is its explication of technique. (And no, I am not forgetting Louisette Bertholle or Simone Beck).
And it is easy to think of the perennial Joy of Cooking as a recipe book, but while I would never consider being without my own copy — which is the single volume I would keep if required to disinvest in all but one cookbook — I never cook from its recipes, but depend on it to consult on how long to cook a pork roast or how to poach a trout. For me, it is my go-to technique book. It has never let me down.
The importance of technique is that once you have learned all the basics, you can abandon all your recipes and begin cooking on your own, with full confidence that you know how.
The third type of cookbook I might call the travel book, the book that explains culture and geography through cuisine. Television has largely taken over this genre. One of the best at this was Anthony Bourdain, although his work was in TV rather than in books (although he wrote his share of them, too).
Amber Hoffman wrote The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy. David Lebovitz wrote The Sweet Life in Paris. Yemisi Aribisala wrote Longthroat Memories: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. Fuchsia Dunlop gave us Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
There are also historical books that take us through the history of a single ingredient, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World and his Salt: A World History. Or Beans: A History by Ken Albala.
Kurlansky also translated Emile Zola’s novel about the food markets of 19th Century Paris: The Belly of Paris.
Finally, there are a series of books about the kitchens of famous artists — three Monet alone. Others cover Van Gogh and Matisse.
The fourth class is similar to the third, so that even the line between them is blurred, which is the food memoir and the food essay.
Bourdain had a best seller with his jaundiced look at the backstage antics of restaurants in his Kitchen Confidential. Jacques Pepin is a bit more nostalgic about the hardships of his long culinary training in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.
Three food writers wander back and forth between memoir and essay: M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Ruth Reichl. Fisher wrote The Art of Eating, David wrote An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.
I feel I have to mention one of my favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin. Where others are rhapsodic, he is ironic and quirky. His essays were usually published in The New Yorker, and some were collected in three of his books on food — American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater; Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater; and Third Helpings. The three were later published in a single volume titled The Tummy Trilogy.
The genre was born in 1825 with the publication by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin of his Physiologie du Goût, or to give it its full title (translated): The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy; a Theoretical, Historical and Topical Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris by a Professor, Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies. Brillat-Savarin was a man who liked to eat and what is more to write about what he ate.
He is perhaps most famous for having said: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
All of these books are a pleasure to leaf through, to look at the pictures, to read the introductions, to read the recipes and imagine their tastes — the way a musician can look at a score and hear the music in her head.
It was 1965, the year that ran from the last half of my junior year in high school through the beginning of my senior year. In between, I spent the summer traveling through Norway and Europe. I mention that last because it made that year quite distinct in my memory, and I can recall all the books I read that year. Or all I can remember; there may be a few I’ve forgotten.
It was a year of promiscuous reading. I picked up most anything. I have a list of them. I couldn’t get enough. Schoolwork suffered because I was largely bored by my classes, other than my English classes. I rebelled against doing homework — nothing worse than the questions at the end of a chapter, a tedious exercise. But reading on my own, outside curriculum, held me rapt.
That year marked a change in the direction of my reading. When I was younger, I buried myself in non-fiction. One subject after another would overtake me and I would immerse myself in it. When I was in the eighth grade, my mother got me a young-adult novel, thinking I would enjoy it. But I didn’t read fiction. I remember I told her, “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” But history, biography, essays — even cookbooks — they were “true.” They wouldn’t clog my head with fictional effluvia.
For some reason, that changed in 1965. I picked up novel after novel. Not those assigned in school, of course. That was dry, tired, musty old fustian. I wanted to read what was current, new, on the biting edge. There was James Purdy, John Updike, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon. Needless to say, all of them were well above my meager level of understanding as a 16-year-old.
Some of the reading came in clumps. I read Saul Bellow’s Herzog when it came out, and followed that with Seize the Day and Dangling Man. To let you know how little I understood what I was reading, I reread Herzog earlier this year and was surprised — pleasantly — to discover it is a comedy. A very funny book. I’m afraid the thick layer of irony that makes the book such a delight was invisible to my adolescent mind. I think I saw it the first time as a window on the academic life I was planning to lead after I got out of college, after I got into college.
I had a Kerouac streak, soaking up first Big Sur then Dharma Bums. When I was in Oslo, I found a British paperback of Lonesome Traveler, a series of essays. For a kid my age, this was catnip. When I got home, I finished off On the Road — which I have managed to reread every decade or so, the last time in its original scroll version with all the names undisguised. No, it doesn’t hold up, but what an effect it had on me as a wimpy pimply-faced kid.
The series I probably read the most of was Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. I ate them through like Mars bars. I can’t remember most of their actual titles, they were all sequels like “son of,” and “daughter of” or “return of,” and the plots were interchangeable, but I loved the adventure and the atmosphere of London’s Limehouse district, with its opium dens and insidious “Yellow Peril.” The racism of the books was not yet apparent to me, and when I tried rereading one of them a few years ago, I couldn’t wade through the Victorian-style prose.
A few appealed to my burgeoning hormones and growing anti-bourgeois prejudices. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy was hot stuff to a teenager and so was Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit from Brooklyn was another one way above my pay grade in understanding, but I knew it was subversive.
(In the same vein, among my other reading were two periodicals. I subscribed to both the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. Couldn’t wait for the next Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Such things were puerile, but then, I was a puer. A couple of years later, I was publishing a sophomoric underground newspaper at my college, called the K.M.R.I.A Journal. But then, I was a sophomore.)
There was literary fiction I read, beyond Saul Bellow. I tackled Thomas Pynchon’s V., although I have no recollection of what I might have made of it back then, but I knew the character names were clever. There was Louis Auchincloss and Walker Percy.
Not all of it was high-minded. In Norway, I found a copy of Pat Frank’s Mr. Adam, a post-apocalyptic lampoon, and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. At that age, I also thought John Lennon was not only clever, but profound. At that age.
There were memoirs by Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway, and social and philosophic essays by Marshall McLuhan and Eric Hoffer. And something in-between: Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings.
The film, Zorba the Greek, came out the year before, and so I picked up the book. It launched me into a series of books about Buddhism (Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki) which kept me going in the spring of 1966. But it also dumped me deep into Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which I read in my stateroom on my transatlantic shipboard trip to Norway. There was a lot of time to kill and a very fat book to murder it with.
I imagine my teenage years were peculiar. I came from a quiet middle-class family. I doubt there were as many as a dozen books in the house, outside the grocery-store-premium Funk & Wagnalls. We lived on the New Jersey side of The Bridge (GW, that is — George Washington) and I spent as much time as I could on the non-Jersey side of that bridge, visiting art museums, concert halls and bookstores. In particular, I took the subway down to the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, a tiny, crowded store with books piled high on all walls. (There was also the Hudson News at the 178th Street bus terminal, where I stopped every time before getting on the Public Service bus to go home to the benighted other side of the Hudson River.)
There was a time, many years later, when I was unemployed and nearly homeless (praise be to dear friends), that I dove back into the books and for a period of six months or so, read a book a day. I cannot say that such speed-reading provided the same depth of experience, but I soaked up a great deal that has served me well in the 40 years since. Reading has been my life, and has come out the other end as writing.
I suppose I mention all this Proustian self-absorption because I look around the house now that I have turned 71 and see my walls held up by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and know that a lifetime of constant reading began in those years that — at the time — I considered a complete waste. High school was a torture I absolutely hated. Books taught me a billion times more than those classrooms ever did. It must say something that I remember so many of the books I read in that one seminal year. And have reread so many of them as a grown-up.
These are the covers of the editions I read in 1965, click on any image to enlarge
The house is full of books. There is not a room in it, including the bathroom, that does not contain a bookshelf. Even the hallway has a floor-to-ceiling at the far end.
The kitchen has cookbooks; the bedroom has those I’m currently reading or have recently read; the office has one wall covered with poetry, another shelf filled with classical authors and a third wall plastered, not with books, but with CDs. The living room has the large, coffee-table art books and all my musical scores. Even the laundry room at the back of the house keeps an overflow. I just bought a new six-foot-tall shelf for it to keep up with the onslaught.
The question arises: Why do we keep so many books? What is the purpose of holding on to so many, even some we finished reading decades ago and almost certainly will never consult again? Is it simply hoarding? Is it nostalgia? Is it insulation, making the outer walls of the house thicker against the winter cold?
Many years ago, my wife invented a term for us. We had gone well beyondbeing bibliophiles. We were officially “bibliopaths;” it was now a pathology.
I remember the home of a favorite college professor. I was young and in love with learning and when invited to his home, I marveled at the walls lined with board-and-brick homemade shelves, stuffed with all the arcane and exotic tomes of scholarship. I knew then and there that I wanted that for myself.
When I was older, and indeed had upholstered my rooms with books, I also knew I had to unload some of them. It was too much. Not only were the shelves full — so much that they no longer functioned as decor, but as hazard — the floors, tables, chairs and refrigerator were also piled with books. If nothing else, the cat was in danger of being killed by a bookslide, an avalanche of tumbling paper and leather that might squash the poor beast into a stain of blood and fur on the hardwood floor.
The periodic cull was called for. Going over the collection and deciding, strictly, that one-in-ten or two-in-ten just had to go. Box them up and take them to the used bookstore for credit. Or donate them to the library book sale. Or drop them unannounced somewhere worthy.
When we lived in Arizona, we piled the car full of these overages and drove to the Gila River Indian Community at Sacaton, about 50 miles south of Phoenix. We came to the old wood-frame building that functioned as the community library. It was closed. I jimmied the door open, carted about 10boxes in, left them by the front desk with a note saying, “The midnight skulker strikes again.” And left.
A few years later, we thought we’d do the same thing with a new set of supererogatory volumes. Drove to Sacaton. Found the library. But lo, they had responded to our first visit by adding a deadbolt lock to the front door and a chain-link fence around the building. So, we had to leave our books on the front stoop. And left.
But no matter how many times we culled, how many library sales we added to, we always seemed to refill the cup almost instantly with new books — or newly purchased used books — often from the same library sale we had given to.
It wasn’t only at home. At my carrel in the newspaper office where I worked for a quarter of a century, a bookshelf half-blocked the passageway behind my desk and the whole flat surface on which my computer rested was also piled high with reference books. The paper had a perfectly good library and three librarians to help with research, but I still felt that in my particular field — art criticism — I needed my hundred specialized books. (In my last years, the research was largely transferred to Google and Wikipedia and so the books became more of a fashion statement than a resource).
There was a moment, after a divorce (this is a common story), that I decided I should pare my belongings down to the essential, following the crank advice of Henry Thoreau. I would lose all the excess accretion of years and be able to carry all my belongings in a single rucksack. I had decided that the only two books I needed were a Shakespeare and a Bible. These were the foundations on which all else was built.
Of course, it never worked out that way. Even when my lady friend and I decided to take six months and hike the Appalachian Trail, and weighed every ounce of our equipage, I still managed to pack a complete Milton.
Yes, it’s a disease. But there are good reasons for the libraries that so many of my friends and relatives also keep. At least four.
The first and most obvious is for reading. If you read a lot, you will naturally find your collection growing. Some people manage to obviate this impediment with a library card. For such people, the pile of books gets replaced weekly or biweekly with a new pile.
But, if you believe that reading requires underlining and the writing of margin notes, well, the local librarian tends to frown upon such vandalism. So, you must own the books, keeping them after you have read and responded to them. Anyone who reads regularly knows that books tend to spread in the house like kudzu. It is these books that you must force yourself to cull periodically.
Second, books are needed for reference. Especially if you are a writer, you know you occasionally need to look up a quote, a favorite passage, or at least to cite the birth or death date of someone you reference in the writing. For an art critic, it also means a ton of art books, so you can find a particular painting by Monet or Fra Angelico. You might need to remember if the house behind Christina is painted white or left weathered wood, or if there is a cat or a bear cub sitting in the front of the dugout canoe in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders on the Missouri (comparison with an alternate version of the painting in Detroit makes it seem more ursine than feline).
Both of these initial reasons for keeping books are built on utility. And there is no doubt, the usefulness of books should not be sniffed at (although the smell of books is one of their addictive qualities).
A third reason for keeping some of these books is the emotional investment you may have in them. This book was given to you by your grandmother — that’s never leaving the house — or that one was a birthday gift from someone you loved who is now dead, or this one was the first book you ever owned, when you were in third grade and were wild about dinosaurs. You can have emotional attachments to books just as you can with people, or rather, the books are a ghost of the people you have cared for.
A corollary to this is the problem of once having culled a book you thought you were over, you spend your time and treasure years later re-acquiring it. Sometimes my only reason for spending an afternoon in a used bookstore is the hope you might glimpse a long-lost book you wish to god you had never dumped.
A fourth reason is the neurosis of the collector. A good quarter of the books I own are parts of such collections. I have dozens of books about the photographer Edward Weston. I have loved his work since I was an adolescent and have not only many photobooks filled with his images, but some rarer books: The Cats of Wildcat Hill, California and the West, My Camera on Point Lobos, a reprint of his book illustrations for Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass. Several of these have actual financial value.
Another collection is of books from the Library of America. One whole floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with the blue, green or red clothbound beauties from that publisher, each handsome and beautifully printed. I cannot afford them new, but I sconch any one I see used when I am scouring the used bookshops.
I also have complete, or nearly-complete collections of the works of William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Herman Melville — and I am beginning to load up on H.L. Mencken.
The sin of the collector, of course, is completism. I am not quite so nuts that I want first editions, or all editions of certain books. A single copy of each work is enough for my completist heart.
There are no doubt other reasons for filling your home with volume after volume. But if nothing else counts, it should be enough that books are a delight. Not only their content, but the feel, heft, the buckram or linen, the morocco or half-leather, the gold print spine, the marbled endpapers, the scarlet headband, the deckled or gilt fore-edge, the texture of slight embossment that lead type presses into the paper, the sound of a turned page.
Although none of this matters like the world-wiping ability of reading the books to give you access to places, thoughts, cadences, structures, values, opinions, insights, that you would never otherwise be privy to.
If there is a problem that I face now, it is what will become of these friends when I am gone? A collection of books is so personal that they, together, make up a portrait of their owner. There is a reason Thomas Jefferson’s library was kept intact to form the basis of the Library of Congress. Mine, of course, is not so reverend, and there is no one who has any use for this particular selection of volumes. What is lifeblood for me, would be a burden for anyone coming after, having to disperse my estate. And my estate is almost entirely bound up in bound volumes.
In the meantime, I am not yet going anywhere, and my books are my dear companions.
Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close.
My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.
That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras.
I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end.
The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.)
I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata.
The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man.
Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud.
Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on.
There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life.
From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read.
Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides.
Shakespeare & Co., Paris
I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy.
What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.
And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible.
One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.
And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change.
So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it.
When you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance art brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.
We are all Tristan or Holden Caulfield.
Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.
Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd instinct.
I have been as guilty as anyone. In 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew.
Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend in art is, there are acolytes and epigones.
At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.
And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art fades to pathetic simulacrum.
When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.
The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.
But what I really learning from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs, and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.
The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.
Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.
The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beads of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance, it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.
When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe eight years old, those building burnt down one night in a glory of flame.
In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from the Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant successions wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.
Everything in nature told me the same thing: busyness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.
And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it wasRaphael and Delacroix on the high end.
The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. It wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.
Whether it was 18th century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.
I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.
I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th Century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.
Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that art over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.
It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age, and I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.
The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside, I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing was reified into monumentality. Instead, there was the profusion, confusion and organicim that I recognized from my own experience.
And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends.
I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.
Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that show in the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter.
Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.
And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. Each chapter in this volume is a single look at a single place, with all the images usually taken in a very short amount of time, a single visit.
For the pictures here, selected from those loose leaves, I have managed to edit them down to a manageable few. Here are a couple, maybe three, images from each of several of those “books.” I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted.
If I have succeeded, I have also failed.
For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.
It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsberg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.
And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.
It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.
Mathematics. We all have our personal sums and divisions. I was once 20; I am now 70. The years have added up, and what is left is now a fraction.
When I entered college in 1966, I was just over half the age of the professor who had the most influence on me. He is now 85 and have become exactly 14/17ths his age. I am catching up. The ratio has narrowed.
(If we both live long enough, I calculate by my birthday in 2025, I will be older than him by seven months.)
There was once a great difference in our ages and in our wisdom; now we are roughly equal. The piling of years does that; the gathering of experience.
I have spent my life learning. It is the basic drive, like women for Don Giovanni, or gathering corporate acquisitions for Warren Buffett. But more math: Every time I increase what I know by 2 percent, I double what I don’t know. I learn arithmetically, I become ignorant exponentially. It is as if I am splashing in an inflatable wading pool on the beach next to the ocean.
When I was young, I was a complete idiot, and my ambition in life was to know everything. Seriously: everything. I suppose underneath the surface, I understood that was impossible. But you have to have some kind of aspiration.
But back then, being an idiot, I still thought being intelligent meant knowing a lot of stuff. And I knew a lot of stuff. Piles of facts and factoids. I could explain the Defenestration of Prague in 1618: the shifting taxonomy of lions from Felis leo to Panthera leo to Leo leo; the use of the Neopolitan sixth chord as the subdominant in a minor key. And perhaps I showed off a bit too much. But now I understand that knowing stuff is mere accumulation. Nothing to take credit for: These things stuck in my mind because my brain is gummy.
Besides, the more you learn, the more you discover that what you once took to be fact has either been superseded by later research, or been misunderstood, or turned out to be canard and cant. I.e., Cliff Clavinism.
I have a pile of books and music scores that keep me going, and I add to that all the things of the real, the physical world, that I observe — the seasons changing on the trees, the birds chirping, the clouds ranging over the skies.
I am hungry to take it all in.
But there is another delusion: that being intelligent somehow means being rapid of apprehension. Quick. Sharp. Fast on the uptake. While it is true that a fast comprehension comes with intelligence, it is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient.
People who know they are smart tend to sort things very quickly into their silos, eager like tennis pros, to volley the next shot back. C’mon, you can bring’em faster than that! But sorting isn’t intelligence. Quickness of wit is fine; it is fun, it is exhilarating, but it doesn’t get us to the core of things.
This is something I have come to understand over many years. Two people, more than any others, more than any book or class, taught me what to value in whatever mote of intelligence I possessed.
The first was my wife. She was the most intelligent person I ever knew, although, on first hearing her, you might be confused over that issue. She could say the most surprising things: “Andrew Wyeth is more abstract than Jackson Pollock” or “You can fall into blue.” (We once argued over that last one for three full days and nights, before I capitulated. I always gave in. She was always right, although you had to think sideways or give up long-held unreflected prejudices. Wyeth is abstract in the sense that he abstracts a visual essence from the world and flattens it into an image made of blurts and squiggles, while a Pollock painting is no abstraction: It is palpably and solely a painting; it is what it is and nothing else. As for blue, I have been drowning in it since that fight.)
What she had was complete and utter openness to input. A failure to plop input into those silos. She didn’t so much think outside the box, but was unaware there was a box. I marveled at her insight, which she was basically oblivious to. It just was.
It led me to my doctrine of volitional ignorance. That is, to approach any subject from the point of view of complete innocence. Forget what you think you know and just take in the new experience.
The second person, and earlier lesson came from that professor, now frail and failing, who forced me to engage with the material.
When I first got to college, I knew I was bright, and I responded to classes by doing what I had always done: giving the teacher what he or she wanted. I was good at that. But in my class of English Romantic Poetry, I handed in my first paper, saying exactly what I knew my professor wanted me to say and he gave me back my paper with a big, red “D” on it. (Technically, it was a D-plus). I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the paper that didn’t repeat what he had said in his lectures. It couldn’t have been that far wrong.
But what he wanted from me was not what I thought he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the material. To know something, not to know about something. There is a difference, not just in magnitude, but in kind between knowing about and knowing.
That is where engagement comes in. Paying attention. Not sorting to be done with, but holding something between your thumb and fingers, twirling it around, seeing it from all sides, squeezing it to see how hard it is, cutting it open to see what’s inside.
You must start from the simplest things. Looking at a painting, do not decide what the subject is or means, but first look. Long and hard. Describe everything you see, however slight. Don’t forget the corners, what is hidden in the shadows, describe the exact color of the blank parts of the background, what the fingers of the subjects left hand is doing. Get all the bits in first. Take time. I once spent seven hours in front of a single painting. It takes time and commitment. It takes engagement.
Only when you have spent all the time you need should you then essay to understand what the art might be about. Ingest it first, digest it second.
Fifty years ago, my professor forced me to engage with the material. I wasn’t there to learn facts about Shelley, but to engage with the work and see what it might teach me. I have been attempting that ever since. It is a hard practice to keep up: so much easier to categorize and dispense and move on to the next. More efficient. Gets things done.
But if you really want to partake in this life, be embedded in the world into which you have been dropped, it is essential to pay attention, to know in your bones how little you truly understand.
For the world is infinitely complex and can obey no schema you toss over it. Engage with it on any level and extract whatever you can. Savor it.
As I’ve become older, I have become less tolerant of badly-designed, -printed and or -bound books. When I was younger, often I didn’t really know the difference, or thought there was nothing I could do about it — I would just have to read whatever volume came to hand.
These days, however, if a book is the wrong size, has print too tiny, or margins to slender, or its binding cracks when opened too often, I simply put it aside and pick up another book.
It helps that the books I read are primarily classics — that is, books that come in various published versions. Best sellers tend to come only in the version their publishers produce, but when it comes to Lucretius or Melville, you can find a choice of version. You don’t have to put up with yellowing paper or brittle glued bindings.
I bring this up, because I have settled on a prodigy of good book production. The paper is acid free, the type is neither too small or too big, the ink is solidly black, the margins adequate for scribbling, the bindings tight and the covers covered in a beautiful linen. As a bonus, each book comes with its own ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. They are sold under the name Everyman’s Library and in the U.S. are an imprint of Knopf.
The current editions are not the same as the classic Everyman’s Library books that are the hidden treasure dug up in every excavation of a dusty old used bookstore in an off-the-way road in rural America. In the past, avid prospectors of used books to read (as opposed to the more modern perversion of seeking first-editions and rare books for a “collection” shown off to visitors and seldom actually read) would seek out Everyman’s books and their American equivalent, Modern Library books. They were cheap, well made and gave you access to all the classic novels and poetry you craved. You can still uncover Modern Library books on the swayback shelves of those bookstores, but some of them have actually become “collectible,” and therefore unaffordable.
The original Everyman’s Library was devised in 1905 by J.M. Dent and Company in London, with the idea of creating a 1,000 book library of world literature affordable to the ordinary man (and woman). The books originally sold for a shilling apiece (roughly $5 in current U.S. dollars). The books were beautifully designed, in imitation of the books of the Kelmscott Press, and were pocket size and hard cover. I still own several titles, including the entire Spectator series written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, from the 18th century. Four volumes of enameled prose.
The current Everyman’s Library books are full size, with nice curved spines, clean linen hard covers, color coded by which century a book was written in, and offer more than 300 titles. They also produce a series of pocket-sized volumes of poetry that you can carry around with you without tearing open the corners of your jacket pockets.
The first of the new Everyman’s Library I became aware of was when I looked for a version of Tristram Shandy I could read. The one I had was a lousy paperback in dense print with insufficient leading between lines. It was an offset print version poorly inked, meaning the letters often grayed out on the yellowed pages. Pfui. But I found a used copy of the Everyman’s Library version and it was as if the sun shone from behind the clouds and the angels’ sang. I read it cover to cover, enjoyed the hell out of it and realized how much the book design helped me navigate it.
There is another excellent series of books published as the Library of America, which reprints American classics in beautiful editions. Compared with the Everyman’s Library, the Library of America suffers from slightly smaller type and thinner paper. They are excellently edited and offer many tomes not even available elsewhere (such as William Bartram’s Travels and Francis Parkman’s histories). As I gaze to my left at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my office, I count 49 Library of America book spines. I seek them out in used bookstores to save a few bucks — another advantage of the Everyman’s Library books is that, while they are no longer a shilling apiece, they do run an average of a third less than the Library of America offerings.
I bring all this up because I am presently reading the Everyman’s Library edition of P.G. Wodehouse. It is 840 pages of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle and Mr. Mulliner in prose as frothy as the foam above a double latte. Friends who know me well knot their eyebrows and wonder what’s going on with Nilsen. Where is the man who would rather collate translations of Vergil than dive into a chocolate sundae?
As it turns out, one needs some balance in a life. As I consider my recent reading history I see the obvious pattern. After diving deep (and I mean deep) into Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, I needed to blow off the louring clouds, and took on John Updike’s Bech books — collected, as it turned out, in an Everyman’s Library volume. Enjoyed the heck out of them.
After that I took on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is three giant volumes long of depression, depravity, injustice, sadism and totalitarianism. I got through the first volume and a half before I had to put it down for a spell. In the interim, I took up Jean Renoir’s memoir of his father. It was a joy to read. I am not a big fan of Pierre Auguste’s paintings, but his son is an excellent writer and I came to value Renoir pere as a man, even if the book didn’t change my thinking about him as an artist.
It felt like diving into the sea, coming up for air, diving down once again, and coming up into the sunlight for relief.
After Renoir, I got back into the Gulag, but soon needed more oxygen, so before I even finished Vol. 2, I headed off to reread Melville’s I and My Chimney — my favorite of his Piazza Tales, and then into A Mencken Chrestomathy, for a good draught of cynicism and cold water before returning to the Solzhenitsyn. But I got sidetracked by another Everyman’s Library book: The Book of Common Prayer.
I don’t know if it was the recent election or what, but I felt I needed the cleansing of some very pure language. You may ask, why would a hardened atheist decide to read Thomas Cranmer’s iconic prayer book? It certainly wasn’t for the theology; it was for the words, so familiar to us, speaking to us of hundreds of years of linguistic tradition, a source of all we take as serious and dignified in the English language. It is hard to turn the page and not find some phrase that is our mother tongue’s subconscious. There is comfort in those cadences.
After that, I took on D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. I enjoy his travel books more than his fiction. He is one odd fellow, idiosyncratic, often wrong-headed in the extreme, but always fun to read.
Other palate-cleansers I have dipped into include Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
When I have done with Wodehouse, the next in the queue is War and Peace. It is a book that if I were to go to a Roman Catholic confession, I would have to admit, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never read War and Peace.” I know it is on the list of books that one should have read, but although I had begun the thing several times over the years, I had never found a volume comfortable enough to read. The thing is immense. One version I bought came with a complimentary hydraulic lift to help lug it around.
Then I discovered the Everyman’s Library edition — in three easily handled volumes, breaking up the density into digestible bits. It comes in its own box, with small wheels attached to help roll it around. (Actually, I’m making up the wheels, but it does have its own box.)
It sits there staring at me, waiting for me to finish with Bertie Wooster and challenging me with Pierre Bezukhov. If I make it through — like trudging from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok — I will find something a little lighter to serve as a sherbet dessert before taking up Vol. 3 of the Gulag.
The New York Times runs a feature in its book section called “By the Book,” where famous authors are asked a set of questions. The Times will never get around to me, so I decided I needed to ask myself these standard questions.
Question: What books are currently on your nightstand?
Answer: I am about 70 pages into the second volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. There are three volumes; I fear my nightstand may collapse. Not only for the weight of the books — they are real doorstops — but for the sagging heaviness of its content. For some reason, I have an unquenchable thirst for validation of my pessimism, for a dim view of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind, and likewise a depressing recognition of the tiny flame of idealism that refuses to be extinguished. I wish I could get rid of it. It always breaks my heart.
Q: That’s fine for your nightstand, but what book are you currently reading?
Caught me. Yes, I’m 70 pages in to Vol. 2 of the Solzhenitsyn, but it was so depressing, I needed to take a short break. So, I am now finishing up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Turns out it’s nearly as depressing. I’ll be getting back to the Russian as soon as I’m done with the Irishman.
Q: What was the last great book you read?
A: That’s a tough question to answer, because you have to decide where to set the bar. Does the Solzhenitsyn count, even though I’m not finished? Before that, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. But that is for content, not for style (nothing wrong with his prose, but that’s not the reason for picking up that depressing book). Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is one of the best translations I have ever read. I just finished rereading it (again). I read all three of John Updike’s Bech books and reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I first read in high school when it first came out. But if you mean really great, like Moby Dick or Proust, then I will up the ante, if you want great, the greatest book I have ever read is Homer’s Iliad. How can it be that the first book in our culture is also the greatest? I reread it once a year.
Q: What book did you hate reading as a child?
A: Hands down: I was required in 8th grade to read Oliver Twist. I hated it. I hated, hated, hated it. The teacher had picked out a book she thought each student would most enjoy and I got saddled with Dickens. I don’t know what she saw in me that thought I would enjoy reading a Victorian novel, but it has ruined me for life, not just for Dickens, who I still cannot bear, but for all Victorian literature. The fault is not in the books, but in myself. I grant that. But I feel like I’m chewing an old mattress when I try once more.
Q: Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
A: We are all inclined to favor certain styles and epochs and to fail to appreciate others. I have never been able to stand Virgil’s Aeneid. It feels completely stiff and academic to me, too literary, too contrived, artificial. I have tried to read many different translations, hoping to find one I could stomach, but so far … no. As for not finishing, I came across a used set of the complete works of Ogden Nash. I so looked forward to wallowing in his wit. Lightweight, yes, but clever. At least, so I thought. Turns out, all the great bits he wrote are already anthologized to death and the stuff that you don’t already know — it turns out there’s a reason you don’t know it. Pedestrian, dull, dated, trying too hard, puerile, or contorted beyond enjoyment. I couldn’t finish it. I’ll keep to the good verses I already know.
Q: What do you read for fun?
A: My wife makes fun of me by calling me “the man who can’t have fun.” She means I’m always in some serious book of history, or the classics. She means that on weekends, I watch C-Span. (There are some very few beings in this world whose utter humanity and service to humankind recommends them for sainthood and among them I place the Dalai Lama, David Attenborough and Brian Lamb). My wife wants me to go see some popular movie or wear a funny hat for a costume party, and I just cannot get any pleasure from such things. I dread state fairs and Renaissance festivals. Shoot me if you ever see me at a karaoke bar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. It’s just that my definition of fun is different from hers. I get the greatest pleasure from listening to Bach or Schoenberg, reading John Milton, viewing films by Tarkovsky and rereading Ovid one more time. I can’t help it. I’m not pretending, or trying to make myself sound more brainy; these are the things I genuinely enjoy. I do them for pleasure. Utter pleasure.
Q: All the time? Really?
A: Well, my wife and I share an enjoyment watching British detective series on TV. American cop shows are too violent for our tastes, and the crimes are always by serial killers, drug kingpins or terrorists. The British series tend to focus on the more mundane crimes we are all more likely to encounter in life, crimes of jealousy, greed, anger. And the British series often bypass the actual murder, joining the story as the body is found. We love them all, from the wimpiest to the grittiest. Unfortunately, between the two of us, we have defused too many of these mysteries by discovering the most successful trick in fingering the guilty party, and it has nothing to do with clues. It is a metalogic method: Just look for what we call “the unnecessary character,” the supererogatory person in the story — an extra sister not otherwise needed, a solicitor outside the main story, an ex-boyfriend or a retired cop, dragged into the story for reasons not otherwise clear. The unnecessary person rarely fails us.
Q: But this is about books. Do you read mysteries, too?
A: Sort of. I’m addicted to Maigret books. Whenever I have to decompress from reading more about genocide in Eastern Europe, I pop open another Maigret. But properly speaking, they aren’t mysteries. We often know who the culprit is early in the book. Instead, they are novels about crime, and Georges Simenon fills the pages with vivid characters, drawn in three dimensions. There is little of the piling up of clues and gathering people together at the end to ferret out the killer. Instead, the same books could probably have been written without the crime at all, as perhaps love stories or travel books. I love Simenon as a writer. By the way, we have the DVDs of all the Bruno Cremer Maigret episodes and the British version with Michael Gambon. Watched them all multiple times.
Q: What books give you the most pleasure in the reading?
A: And the re-reading. There are a handful of books I can read over and over and always give me pleasure, not so much in the storytelling — since I already know how it comes out — but in the words. The words, words, words. Certain writers just make my mouth water with the words they use, the metaphorical and playful use they make of them. If I were to make a list of, say, the top five books that give me utter, ecstatic pleasure, they would be: 1. Tristram Shandy; 2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; 3. Paradise Lost; 4. Joyce’s Ulysses; and 5. The Iliad. I cannot get enough of all of them. Oh, and I have to add Chaucer; can’t leave him off. And Moby Dick. Jeez, I love that book. I cannot limit it to five. How could I leave off Ovid’s Metamorphoses?
Q: What books most influenced you as a writer?
A: So many people were influenced by Hemingway. I was not. Instead, I loved the long, baroque sentences and richly figurative language of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, image piled on image with a profuse fertility, leaving me, as a reader, feeling like I was being pulled one way and then another by breakers at the beach. Oddly, I often read secondary works before moving on to the main course. I read all of Melville’s short stories, including Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, before I ever finished Moby Dick. Perhaps because I loved the opening chapter of Moby Dick so much, every time I put the book down and picked it up again, I started from the beginning. I must have read “Loomings” a hundred times before finally moving on to the rest. The other great influence was Henry Miller, not for the obscenity, but for the torrent of words, the forward motion of the narration in such books as Plexus, Tropic of Capricorn and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ve since left Miller behind, but he was a great ignition flame.
Q: Which writers writing today — novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, critics — do you admire most?
A: I am not being disingenuous when I say my favorite living poet is my wife, Carole Steele, whose book, Rust Sings, is full of life and great lines. And I always open my New Yorker to its final pages looking for Anthony Lane.
Q: What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?
A: First, it would have to be an author in English. I can’t speak ancient Greek. There are some that come to mind, but I’m not sure I really want to know them: Nabokov is too waspish; Faulkner too inebriated; Gibbon too erudite. I go through a list and realize most authors I would rather read than meet. But there is one I would love to spend a lazy afternoon with, talking and making jokes and maybe commiserating a bit — Laurence Sterne. We could share a beer easily. What would I want to know? Not a thing; let’s just talk.
Q: What is your favorite word?
A: We’ve made a pivot (Bernard) in this Q&A, haven’t we. What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? Not “elbow,” not for me, though it is a fine word. No, I like “smudge,” or perhaps “caliper,” which on the page has both an ascender and a descender, which makes it a good word to compare typefaces with. Really, I can’t pick one word. How does a mother choose among her children? Not possible.
Q: What is your favorite curse word?
A: I rarely curse, which makes it more effective when I do.
Q: If a movie were to be made from your life, who should play you?
A: Ideally, Jean Gabin, but more realistically, Michel Simon.
Q: What sound or noise do you love?
The squall of thousands of Canada geese in a pond and flying overhead. A noise most people find excruciating, but in me, it brings forth the swelling of my chest and the tears one sheds faced with ultimate beauty.
Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
A: “Don’t unpack, we’re sending you back for another round.”