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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

This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it. 

(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)

And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down. 

Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many on art and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.) 

People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing. 

Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations. 

“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”

The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood. 

I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or  — one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile. 

When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)

When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.

I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings. 

I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different. 

Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing. 

I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello. 

I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences. 

Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me. 

I want a five-course meal of my words. 

Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world. 

This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal. 

And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all. 

Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up. 

All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.

And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions. 

Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak. 

It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words. 

I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

I am writing this for myself; you needn’t read it. Usually, if I include myself in a piece I write, it is only to provide a personal angle on a wider, more general point that is the purpose of the text. I try not to intrude on your patience. But here, I really am writing for myself: If you continue reading, you will be eavesdropping on thoughts not aimed at you. 

One of my granddaughters is currently on an archeological dig in Peru, part of her university studies. I wrote her saying this could be a life-defining experience for her. And that began my thinking: What have been those life-defining moments for me? I don’t simply mean chronologically, such as we all encounter as we age through our existence, such milestones as going off to school, turning 21, getting married and divorced, suffering job interviews and eventually retiring. No, I mean those episodes that bend the twig so the tree is inclined: Those things that turn us into ourselves rather than into someone else. 

I could start, like David Copperfield, with “Chapter 1: I am born.” Not for the mere fact, which is universal, but for the inheritance I was given in the womb of the random pairings of genes that govern a good deal of my personality, abilities, and inclinations. I began not ab ovo a blank slate, but with bits of genetic material that came through my parents from their parents before them and so on, tracking back, if I had the means, first to Africa, and then beyond to single-cell beasties in the pond water, and before that to the prokaryotes and lithotrophs, the bacteria and the original amino acids, some semblance of which are still floating in my chromosomes, like genetic homeopathy. This ancestry is still there in every cell of my body, and they all have a “life-defining” push and pull. 

Beyond that, the first experience I had that altered my life was going to school, and not just the school, but the going. From kindergarten on, I walked to school every day and home again. It was a mile from home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School, and I soon began to take “short cuts” home each day, which were new routes often so far out of the way, I actually went through neighboring towns on my nostoi. These routes served two functions: first, that I avoided the routine and the boredom that ensues; second, to explore the wider world and see what else was out there. I have continued to explore and to avoid routine for the rest of my life. 

Then there was the moment I learned to read, although I cannot remember a time I couldn’t. But there was the discovery of the school library, which was also the town library, in the basement of the Charles deWolf Elementary School (we had moved). I read every book I could find there, subject by subject. Third grade was devoted to dinosaurs. 

After that, the next turning point, I believe was in third grade, when in art class we were asked to draw Christmas trees for the holiday. I earnestly built my tree up with a trunk and branches, which curved upward, as they do on a fir tree. My teacher told me I was wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how a Christmas tree really looked, making the familiar diagrammatic greeting-card or cookie-cutter shape.

I was outraged, because I had looked at Christmas trees and I knew I was right and the teacher was wrong. So much for any trust in authority. I took from this a trust in my own observation. This would also later lead me to mistrust many mere conventions that were widely taken to be iron-clad  truths. 

As much as I loved grammar school, I hated high school. Most likely, it was just a victim of my adolescence. I studied and learned the things that piqued my interest, and ignored subjects that bored me. Concomitant grades. I got many an A in hard subjects and too many a C or D in subjects I found boring, badly taught, or otherwise had little interest in. 

But two events aimed my life in new directions. First, I worked on the student newspaper, expecting to be its photographer. But I wrote two stories for it, and both won state-wide awards. I didn’t know then I would become a writer.

The second was finding a girlfriend, who, it turned out, would go on to become a professional bassoonist, and while we were courting, we listened to classical music. I remember fondly sitting on her parents’ couch with her, spooning to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My homelife was oddly devoid of music. I was insufficiently stimulated by the popular music of my time and my own parents seldom listened to any music, except what turned up on TV variety shows, and so, becoming exposed to serious music was a revelation. I became not just a writer, but eventually a classical music critic for my newspaper. 

In college, the single most important thing was a class in English Romantic poetry, not so much for the poetry, but for the hard kick in the pants I got from the professor. I was always a smart kid, and was used to knowing how to get good grades, i.e., how to give the teacher what he or she wanted. I knew all the usual tricks. But somehow this professor didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. My first paper came back with a D-minus on it. What is this, I thought. I gave him back what he said in class. But what he wanted was not some rote lesson, but rather he wanted me to engage with the material. It would not have mattered if I was completely wrongheaded, if the wrongheadedness evolved from a genuine dive into the poetry, paying attention to what was actually there. The D-minus was like the slap a doctor gives a newborn to begin life. 

In a way, this was simply a reinforcement of the Christmas tree lesson: Trust yourself. Not arrogantly or stubbornly, but as the starting point. What the book says, or the teacher, must at least at the beginning correspond to my own experience. I may later learn more, and expand my horizon and discover my own ignorance, but the start is myself and my serious engagement with the material. Lesson: Pay attention. 

This has been the first of the two greatest lessons of my life. No: three. 

One other thing happened at college: A friend who had a horrible family turned out not to have a horrible family, and the ruin they had planned for him turned out to have been the psychiatric help I didn’t know he needed. It was another sort of kick in the pants: Things are not always as they seem; there is always more context and backstory than you have access to. This lesson was reinforced a few years later when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which hit home like a ton of bricks. I had been Darley, I had been Balthazar, and the omniscient view of Mountolive does not exist in the world outside fiction. I was suitably chastened and forever after not so cocksure of myself or anything else. 

I skip over my first marriage and the birth of my son, because I was too young, ignorant and callow to understand any of it at the time. The marriage lasted just three years. Suffice it to say that I was repaid karmically in my next relationship for my callousness and unrecognized cruelty. 

I then lived with an exceptional young woman for seven years. I was settled into that relationship for the duration. My life was mapped. That is, until she told me she had decided to marry someone else, a shock that blindsided me and knocked me off kilter for at least five years, during which I left the state, moved to Seattle and tried to find another life to lead. I was a lost soul. 

I shared a house there with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. It was across the street from the zoo, where I found work at the snack counter. The WMOM, who had written several pornographic novels (the first, Sixty-Nine In-Laws, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), was already a published author, and I learned from him a thing or two about writing. I had been so immersed in literature, that when I wrote anything, it was like I was trying to be part of a university curriculum. I wasn’t writing for readers, but for libraries. The WMOM instead wrote quickly, facilely and more like he spoke than like Strunk and White instructed. I learned not to take my words so seriously, but to have fun with them. 

I read constantly, and among the formative books were virtually everything Henry Miller ever wrote. He reinforced the lessons I learned from the WMOM and taught me the importance of flow — that the writing could pour out like spring water. It’s a lesson maybe I’ve learned too well. 

Incidentally, the WMOM has cleaned up his act and is now one of the literary lights of Seattle. Unfortunately, his writing has become so literary as to be almost unreadable. It’s like we exchanged places. 

I practiced writing through letters. I wrote everyone and frequently. I kept carbons of them all. In March of 1978, I pumped out 500 pages on my aqua-colored portable typewriter. The nozzle has been wide open ever since. 

I had a brief romance in Seattle with a zookeeper. The relationship ran hot and cold, and made no sense to me: Did she like me, or did she not?  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to move back East. Only years later did I discover the tragic situation that she was in, and the trauma she had suffered and never told me of. It once again underlined the truth that we never know the whole story, and we should never judge, for we are ignorant. 

This was the second most significant lesson, which I was given reinforcement any number of humbling times. I hope I have learned to wear my nescience gracefully. 

Back in North Carolina, I was close to homeless, and my best college friend and his wife took me in. I lived with them for a year and a half, at their sufferance. They saved my life. But I then found my real wife. We were together for more than 35 years until her death two years ago. 

That encounter was the single biggest thing that happened in my life. In an echo of the English Romantics professor, she forced me to take seriously the fundamental questions of living and to give up any lingering glibness I wore.

Ignorance is about the only thing I had no knowledge of when I was young. I had an answer to pretty much everything. Now, I realize that if I knew a lot of facts, it wasn’t because I was smart, but because the facts stuck on account of my brain being gummy. A collection of facts is not only meaningless, it also prevents learning. When I was a young man, I must have been insufferable. 

I did manage to make some spare change in bar bets. But what I learned from my wife was not so much how to think outside the box, but rather to remain ignorant that such a box even existed. She was the single most intelligent person I ever knew, although that fact might not be immediately apparent when you first met her. She was likely to say the most incomprehensible things, and only if you argued with her — sometimes for two days at a stretch — did you come to understand exactly how brilliant and insightful — how comprehensible — those odd things really were. 

She admitted that she had once been intimidated by my command of facts, but, the longer we lived together, the more I came to value my own ignorance, and the more freely I came to answer, “I don’t know.” She once told me her disappointment. “You used to know everything,” she said. Well, now I don’t. 

She also made me live up to my ideals, and she made me aware, not immediately, but over the long haul, the vital importance of family, and being constantly concerned for someone else’s welfare. The lesson came into profound use as she became increasingly ill and I had to care for her. What she gave to me by her slow decline is inestimable. The greatest hours of my life were those I was able to give to her. I would have given every hour I had, past and future, if she could have lived. 

Her death was the last — or at least the most recent — life-defining point, as I watched her go and came to realize, not something so stale as that life is short. We all know that, especially the closer we come to the end. But that there is little but breath and metabolism behind all that we love and care for. Take that away, and we stare at the void. 

And I can never be vain about my abilities or accomplishments, because not only will my breath and metabolism fail, but that the entire Earth has a sell-by date, the sun, the stars and the universe all sing the lines from Brahms’ German Requiem: “dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.” 

What I could not have imagined coming out of college is that there is nothing distressing or mournful about this, but rather that I have a small, an infinitesimal part in a vast cosmic dance. 

The value is not in the result, but in the engagement. Gratia Rudy. 

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

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. 

everymans-library-lede-pic

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.modern-library-2

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.

everyman-old-style

everyman-old-style-stackThe 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.

library-of-america-shelf

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.

best-of-wodehouse-coverI 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.

war-and-peaceWhen 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.

Gulag 2

Question: What books are currently on your nightstand?

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974Answer: 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?

DublinersCaught 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?

ogden nashA: 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?

brian lambA: 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?

Bruno CremerA: 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?

Herman MelvilleA: 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?

Laurence_Sterne_by_Sir_Joshua_ReynoldsA: 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?

michel simon 1A: 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.”

RW ca 1975When I was young and just out of college, my ambition was simple: to know everything. I mean, to read and study, and do, and finally to be able to put together all the pieces into a single grand scheme: My own unified field theory. I was not daft, I knew at the time this was an impossibility, but I thought as a goal, it was at least a starting place.

peterson guideOthers in my graduating class had more specific goals — to become a doctor or lawyer or research scientist. Such goals required focus and specialization. They would have to learn all they could about law or medicine or pigeon behavior, but I would be purposely unfocused. I wanted to take in the whole horizon. I collected Peterson guides to learn the names and calls of all the birds, the names of trees and wildflowers. I read all the poetry I could find and all the history, too. Ancient, modern and otherwise. I had books on physics and astronomy, and I listened to all kinds of music and learned to read scores. I was in pig heaven.

encyclopedia brownDo not laugh. Of course this was all silly. But when you are young, you are an idiot. I was no exception, in fact, I was probably the the very model of youthful and ignorant assurance. It helped that I had a retentive memory. Or as I now put it: Facts stick because my brain is gummy. I developed something of a reputation, both as a know-it-all, and as “Encyclopedia Brown.” One girlfriend used to make spare cash by betting her coworkers that when I came to pick her up after work, that I would be able to answer a question they thought they could stump me with. “Who was the first secretary-general of the U.N?” “Trygve Lie,” I would say, and money would change hands.

These were sparse years: With no specialization, it was hard to find a meaningful job. I didn’t much care, as long as I had enough money to feed myself and rent a garret apartment. Recreational reading included the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. I was a vacuum cleaner.

I do not know where this drive to learn came from, but I have always had it. Others may learn for reasons of usefulness; I never thought about the pragmatic aspects of knowledge: The learning was the end itself. More, more, I wanted more.

You might point out that a vast accumulation of fact is not really erudition, and that merely knowing bits of fact confetti is not the same as understanding or wisdom. For me, back then, that was beside the point. I wasn’t concerned with wisdom, I just wanted to know everything.

I was lucky, I didn’t have to live with me. I’m sure I drove people nuts with my Cliff Clavin act.

Audubon's Mockingbird

Audubon’s Mockingbird

Time passes and it is now 50 years since I first entered college and took up the study of ancient Greek and the poetry of Chaucer. My memory is no longer so acute. I cannot always bring up the name of the Duchesnea indica or the Mimus polyglottos. But in the long course of years, I have absorbed so much minutiae that it has all transmuted into something else. I cannot call it wisdom; I’m still an idiot. But, at 68, I have accumulated so much experience, I have a very different perspective. The simple enthusiasms of youth have given way to the calmer, chastened complexities of a life both illuminated and deflated. I have no wisdom to impart, but I have observations.

RW at 67In the past, people talked about the wisdom of old age, but now that I am there, I know it isn’t wisdom, it is only the result of long years of witnessing human folly, of many, many head-buttings with the harder facts of existence, and having built up a vast treasury of our own personal mistakes, misunderstandings and imbecilities.

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and each originally came with a short explanation. After the first movement, the remaining ones are: “What the meadow flowers tell me,” “What the forest animals tell me,” “What Man tells me,” “What the angels tell me,” and finally, “What love tells me.” It is clear that no single one of these is sufficient in itself, but the whole presumes all. No single truth suffices.

I hope to present in the next several weeks my humble version of what Gustav loaded into his symphony. The things I have come to understand over nearly seven decades of breathing, seeing, tasting, feeling, dancing, hurting (both transitive and intransitive), and finally coming to some glimpse of loving.

University professors, if they have reached some level of eminence, are occasionally asked to prepare a “last lecture,” which subsumes all the most important lessons they have to give. This is a lecture that cuts through all the burly detail to undiscover the essence of what those details outline.

Me lecturingIt may seem the height of hubris to attempt such a “last lecture,” when I am not a tenured faculty member at an Ivy League academy, and make no claim to exceptional brilliance or wisdom, but the fact is that anyone who lives long enough has a longer view, and sees things differently from when youth fills us with self-righteousness and certainty.

Nor is this one of those inspirational harangues. I am not Mitch Albom and I am not dying immanently, like Randy Pausch. I do not expect to teach you how to be a “better” human being, or to make the world a better place, or disclose the secrets of a happier life. My goal is merely to see a little more clearly and to attempt to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

In short outline, I have maybe 10 or a dozen themes to fill out, which I hope to do in the next few weeks in this blog spot. It is a challenge I have set myself. Have I learned anything?