Schopenhauer argued that the best books deserved two readings. The second allowed for finer, more reflective interpretations, as the beginning was read in light of the end and the whole work in a new mood. Damon Young
Last month was spent in the USA; my first visit. Travelling alone, on my study tour, there was plenty of uninterrupted time to read. It has been a long time since I’ve had a month without cooking; sitting in cafes and restaurants gave me plenty more time than usual to quaff books. I find it essential to have both a fiction and non fiction ‘soundtrack’ to any travel and revisited 20th century American writers as well as finding a couple of new authors via Helen Garner. Re-reading is such a pleasure, especially when in a new location altogether closer to where the book was envisaged.
You will note the number of times that one good book led to the next with multiple quotes from one writer about another in this post. One author likes walking the city, writes about it mentioning a Parisian poet or American writers who miraculously survived the carnage of wars in France to explore the same city, meeting other writers. I love the literary web of connections that so often just appears without even trying very hard to find these gossamer threads.
American fiction and non fiction
New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.
Here is New York by EB White I had read previously in some travel anthology but reading it in New York City was a treat. Along with Elizabeth Bradley’s classy guide it was a great introduction to the city, even though it was written in the mid-twentieth century. White feels the connectedness of the life and history of the city where he is “…twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state, eight blocks from where Nathan Hale was executed, five blocks from the publisher’s office where Ernest Hemingway hit Max Eastman on the nose, four miles from where Walt Whitman sat sweating out editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle…”.
I found that White’s sense that “each area is a city within a city within a city. Thus, no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand…a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop” still felt particularly relevant in 2016. The delicatessen next to my apartment gave me a phone number and said 24-7 I could call for supplies.
Of course, the piece is dated and even White knew this when he revised it almost 70 years ago:
“Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about New York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place—one that I’m not familiar with.
but somehow he has captured the unchanging essence of the place more than one’d imagine possible. I went on to read Essays of E. B. White but skimmed quite a few of his pieces – none of them resounded as much as this essay about NYC.
“From earliest adolescence I knew there was a center-of-the-world, and that I was far from it. At the same time, I also knew it was only a subway ride away, downtown in Manhattan.”
The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir is a great read for someone walking New York City or who is a long-term city-dweller. Gornick’s prose is something special and it is not hard to feel why Garner admires her writing. I particularly enjoyed passages that explored walking, childhood memories of the city and friendship:
“…high school friend introduced me to the streets of upper Manhattan. Here, so many languages and such striking peculiarities in appearance—men in beards, women in black and silver. These were people I could see weren’t working-class, but what class were they?”
“In the 1940s, Charles Reznikoff, a New York poet, walked the streets of his native city. Reznikoff was not a solitary—he was married, worked at a government agency, had literary friends—but the lucidity in his work comes from an inner silence so keen, so luminous, the reader cannot help feeling that he wandered because he needed some reminder of his own humanity that only the street could provide…”
“What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.”
“I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York. We are at one.”
Highly recommended; very highly recommended.
A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but a photograph and words—the right words—are an unbeatable combination.
Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm has some essays that are as good as it gets; others, I skimmed. Her pieces on literature and photography are particularly good examples of long-form writing; mostly published in The New Yorker or New York Review of Books. It was great to read something this sharp while in the USA. Malcolm is a rare intelligence and like Gornick, it is easy to see why Garner admires such prose and trenchant analysis of hard issues; the ones other writers will not touch as they are more about death than life. My only reservation with Malcolm, is unlike Gornick, there does not seem to be the same joy of life or a sense of humour.
I read The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough after finishing Michael Shelden’s wonderful lectures about The Lost Generation: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. Both are excellent explorations of American and French cross-cultural pollination, writing, art and travel. I learnt much more about writers, artists and politicians like Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner, Samuel F. B. Morse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. I was particularly drawn to re-reading Hemingway’s short stories by Shelden’s narrative. As an aside, although not mentioned in these lectures which focus on the 1920s, JD Salinger met Hemingway in Paris during 1944.
SAN FRANCISCO WAS BUILT on a dare. The city was tossed up overnight on the shimmying, heaving, mischievous crust of the Pacific rim. A gold rush city of fortune seekers, gamblers, desperadoes and the flesh-peddling circus that caters to such men, San Francisco defied the laws of nature. It was a wide-open town, its thighs splayed wantonly for every vice damned in the Bible and more than a few that were left out. San Francisco was the Last Chance Saloon for outcasts from every corner of the globe. If the earth didn’t swallow them first, hell soon enough would.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love and David Talbot provided a good soundtrack to San Francisco. Talbot, a progressive journalist, won a Pulitzer for this book which has many stories of the people who led change in the city during the post-WWII period. It gave me more to think about while exploring the streets (and paradoxes) around Berkley, where I stayed, and Haight-Ashbury.
San Francisco’s battles are no longer with itself but with the outside world, as it exports the European-style social ideas that drive Republican leaders and Fox News commentators into a frenzy: gay marriage, medical marijuana, universal health care, immigrant sanctuary, “living” minimum wage, bicycle-friendly streets, stricter environmental and consumer regulations. Conservatives see these San Francisco values as examples of social engineering gone mad. But in San Francisco, they’re seen as the bedrock of a decent society, one that is based on a live-and-let-live tolerance, shared sense of humanity, and openness to change.
I visited the Beat museum and City Lights Books in San Francisco and re-read Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road for the fun of it. It wasn’t that much fun and I much more enjoyed The Dharma Bums which I’d not read before. In fact, On the Road never really did it for me, I just couldn’t relate to the characters or scenarios in the way one would hope. I love the idea of being ‘on the road’ but never really related to ‘the beats’. The Dharma Bums however is really amusing, alive and feels like a much more honest novel about the people and times.
“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures …”
It is sad to know that Kerouac becomes such a defeated alcoholic and I am told his prose reflects his state of being. I have never read Big Sur, maybe next visit to California.
I did not intend to binge on Ernest Hemingway‘s short stories – In Our Time and The Nick Adams Stories – or to re-read A Moveable Feast but Hemingway reels one in. He is deeply unfashionable as an author nowadays but I just love the worlds and prose of his earliest fiction. I have The First Forty-Nine Stories by my bedside to dip into as small treats when too tired to take on a novel. If you have not really read much Hemingway listen to Homage to Switzerland, read and analysed by Julian Barnes, to get a sense of the man prior to the publicity that forever overtook the brilliance of his prose for the uninitiated. Salinger made the comment, on meeting Hemingway in Paris in 1944, that he was not all like he thought and was a good guy. NB I have Anthony Burgess’ biography of Hemingway to read.
“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”
I read Franny and Zooey after watching this documentary about the reclusive JD Salinger which has made keen to read the biography that accompanies this two-hour film. Catcher… I have read and taught many times but assumed that his novellas and short stories were not worth the effort. Salinger published nothing for almost 50 years before he died quite recently at 91.
Franny and Zooey is, acknowledged Salinger to his publisher…’slight’. I enjoyed this novella about the Glass family but Janet Malcolm, in a 2001 piece in the NYRB, relays the delight with which Salinger’s critics descended on him:
When “Franny” and “Zooey” appeared in book form in 1961, a flood of pent-up resentment was released. The critical reception—by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and John Updike—was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please.
Malcolm goes on to defend the book.
Salinger always said: I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill. Reportedly, there will be more Glass family stories released posthumously, along with a novel based on Salinger’s war experiences from D-Day in Normandy through to the occupation of Germany.
Here’s the trailer of the documentary I mentioned (which you really should watch) that tells very much about the reclusive author that was previously concealed.
“‘The Social Life’ of DNA draws upon my encounters with persons of African descent who have used genetic genealogy testing. For more than a decade, I have observed and participated in occasions during which genetic genealogy testing was discussed or offered, including meetings at churches, community centers, libraries, museums, and universities in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I conducted fieldwork and interviews in a wide variety of settings including at local and national gatherings of genealogists, at African American heritage tourism sites, and in living rooms and at kitchen tables…”
The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome by Alondra Nelson is an important book and a fascinating read. I clipped several dozen quotes while reading on my kindle and learnt a great deal about the politics of ancestry in the USA. The book covers many topics that deepened my understanding of what I was hearing and seeing recently in the USA while learning about genetics, particularly non-medical DNA analysis. President Barack Obama is quoted:
“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives—you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Our “fundamental human sameness” is one of the advantages of learning about genetics and Nelson highlights this truth about our DNA in her book. Highly recommended.
The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz was an impulse purchase at a museum gift shop. The information is framed (and story of DNA related) through the device of a visiting alien reporting back to their leader, who is more like a sea cucumber than any other terrestrial life form. I found it a little laboured but intend to give this book to some of my students and will be interested in their responses. I did find it a good overview of complex material and can imagine it 10% finding its way into lessons and handouts. Science teachers should check it out.
“More than 2 metres (6½ feet) of DNA is packed into almost every cell of your body, crammed with thousands of genes that need to be turned on and off at the right time and in the right place. Rather than a neatly bound set of recipes, the genome as we understand it today is a dynamic, writhing library, buzzing with biological readers and writers. The text is constantly copied, tweaked and occasionally even torn up altogether. Every volume bulges with annotations and sticky notes, and there are thousands of pages that just seem to be complete nonsense. The cataloguing system would give even the hardiest librarian a nervous breakdown. Yet out of this chaos, we create life.”
Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work by Kat Arney is not really my kind of book but I am sure it will prove to be popular science that sells well. The author is chatty, relaxed, personable and certainly makes light of her personal challenges on the way to understanding how our genes work and the contemporary uses of DNA analysis. There’s some great one-liners:
J. B. S. Haldane, who said, ‘If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.’
Arney is really successful in explaining complex concepts and her analogies almost always work. I learnt a fair bit, clipped many quotes on my kindle and will use some of her clever explanations in my teaching. The book is more than worth just a look and, not knowing about Hemingway’s cats previously, they would be interesting to visit too.
Poetry and Reading
It is not a given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art; and only that man can gorge himself with vitality, at the expense of the human race, whom, in his cradle, a fairy has inspired with hatred of the home and a passion for voyaging.” Baudelaire, from ‘Crowds’
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and the stunning exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at The Met Breuer, led me back to Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). I noted Manet’s painting, looking for a moment before walking on but it kept tugging on my mind and I went back to carefully re-read the gallery inscription; then I lingered for some time, looking carefully at the rough-hewn, unfinished painting.
Manet’s unfinished painting is thought to depict the funeral of the writer Charles Baudelaire, which took place on September 2, 1867. The artist, unlike other friends who had yet to return from vacation or stayed away owing to the threatening summer storm, was among the few mourners present. This view of the meager funeral cortège at the foot of the Butte Mouffetard, a hill in southwest Paris, is framed by the silhouettes of the towers and cupolas of the Val de Grâce, the Panthéon, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, and the Tour de Clovis in the background.
Manet kept the picture until his death. In 1894 Pissarro acquired it in exchange for one of his own landscapes.
“It was in Baudelaire that the idea of the flaneur developed: that is, the person who strolls aimlessly through the streets of the big cities in studied contrast with the hurried, purposeful activity of the crowd. It was the flaneur, Baudelaire thought, who would morph into the writer of the future. “Who among us,” he wrote, “has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose … [that would] adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness.” Vivian Gornick
I had thought, on reading Gornick’s comments about Baudelaire and strolling, to revisit the poet (who I had read a little at university for fun but never since) now it seemed more pressing. I picked up Twenty Prose Poems at City Lights Books in San Francisco and am so glad I read it before Flowers of Evil. I much prefer his prose poems. I can see why it sells so well for the small press as it still feels remarkably modern.
This edition of The Parisian Prowler: Le spleen de Paris: petits poèmes en prose is wonderfully illustrated and although it has some of the same poems I didn’t enjoy it as much as the slimmer volume which really works as a collection.
Zone: Selected Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) is a wonderfully compact book for your pocket while wandering the streets; one can stop for a coffee and read a poem before exploring further. The introductory essay is excellent in providing context for the poet’s life and literary influence. I always wonder how many other poets, writers, philosophers, scientists and those with rare skills were taken by World War One. Apollinaire died of influenza in 1918 after being weakened by gas and war wounds.
“High school struck me as rigid, superficial and—perhaps worst of all—dull. The rote learning, the jaded teachers, the atmosphere of smug conformity—literature became a burden, not a thrill. Had I read Leonard Woolf ’s memoir Sowing, his description of St Paul’s Preparatory School would have been familiar: ‘I am astonished … to find that the human brain could survive the desiccation, erosion, mouldiness, frustration applied to it for seven or eight hours every day called education’.” Damon Young
The Art of Reading by Damon Young disappointed me a little as I was expecting a more personal, less scholarly reflection. It was still a good enough read though. I particularly enjoyed Young’s ruminations about Nietzsche, Derrida and Woolf. His insights into Schopenhauer were amusing. That philosopher, who was an avid bibliophile, is worth quoting to close this post:
“Thinking is free and spontaneous—the work of an intellectual vanguard. Reading is usually slavish and plodding; for weak souls, too dependent to reflect for themselves.”