Tuesday, December 21, 2010


December 21, 2010:

Yes, 7,000 books. I haven't actually counted them; what I did was count the books on a few standard-length shelves, then count the shelves, then guess the numbers of books piled up on various floors, and finally guess the number in storage. Doing this is to be reminded of Henry David Thoreau's rueful remark to somebody, possibly Emerson, after his publisher sent him the two or three hundred copies of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that had failed to sell (the bulk of the printing), that he now had a library of six hundred books, about half of which he had written himself. I have something similar, several cartons of books I edited for the National Geographic Society Press, but I don't count those as part of my library. I'm trying to find a place to give them away to, but can't imagine why anybody would want eight or nine copies of, say, Sven Hedin's My Life as an Explorer, fascinating as it is.

The other day I picked up a book that's been kicking around my library for many years, Roland Barthes's Mythologies. It, too, is a fascinating book, and I looked through it to see what I had made of it when I first read it, because it's full of my notes. I had bought it in the early 1970s from England--I once had an account at Blackwell's, the Oxford bookseller--because English books were a bit cheaper than American books, and the bookseller's catalogues were far more interesting, and also because I wanted to keep up with French thought, which was beginning to take over humanities studies in this country. I thought it might provide a method; at the time I was trying to figure out how to approach the American dream. I had a contract to write a book about the history of the American dream, and it seemed clear to me that the American dream was a myth, but it wasn't clear what kind, or how it worked in the culture. And I thought Barthes might provide a way to think about such things.

The book turned out not to be all that helpful; rereading the book, I find myself as puzzled now as I was then by Barthes's analyses. On the ways the public "reads" particular events, like a wrestling match, or particular things, like wine and milk, he's brilliant. Wine, for example, he calls a "resilient totem," which is an excellent phrase, and notes that it "supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions." For the common man, wine connects him to his Frenchness; everyone 'knows' that French wine is the best, and that only the French really understand wine. For the writer, however, it serves another function. "The local white wine or the beaujolais of the writer is meant to cut him off from the all too expected environment of cocktails and expensive drinks (the only ones which snobbishness leads one to offer him). Wine will deliver him from myths, will remove some of his intellectualism," will turn him into a man of the people, in short, connect him with the proletariat he longs to relate to, make him more virile, and so on. It's amusing and illuminating; we all know intellectuals who hang out in bars because that's where the "real people" are, the carpenters and plumbers who play darts and watch football and occasionally get into fights.

But when Barthes writes about the more abstract questions of how myths operate semiotically, it becomes much harder to follow his distinctions. Here my old notes express confusion and frustration, and as I read the section over again I am no clearer on what Barthes is trying to say.

Nevertheless I love this book. It is, for one thing, quite handsome. The dust jacket is a soft purple, darkened with age, and the back cover holds a full-page photo of Barthes himself, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette in his right hand, which rests on an open book--what is a French intellectual without his cigarette?--and a small, dry smile on his face, itself handsome and somehow very French. The book has been moved many times, from residence to residence; it has been packed in boxes, rearranged on shelves, and it shows its wear, not only internally with my notes--my handwriting has hardly changed at all in the last thirty or forty years--but externally, with little scuff marks, a scratch or two, and the oil that has come off my skin and soaked into the paper of the jacket and lent it a certain patina. We talk about rooms looking lived in. Books can look lived in, too, and one of the pleasures of collecting rare books is precisely this lived-in look they acquire with age; it is the smell, the feel of them, and their aura. I once owned a book that belonged to Daniel Webster; it had his signature in it, on the front free endpaper (in rare book parlance that's FFE), very firmly, boldly written. It is fatal to grow attached to books, or to anything, and I have sold thousands of my books over the years, including the rarest, but their beauty simply as objects, quite apart from whatever knowledge or pleasure the reading of them reveals, continues to attract me. They are the other half of a relationship that is in some ways like a friendship. Whom shall I be talking with today? The difficult Barthes, or shall I once again follow the elderly American Lambert Strether as he walks the streets of Paris for the very first time and begins to understand that the life he has not had any opportunity to lead is the life he was meant for. That, of course, is Henry James, the book is The Ambassadors, I've read it twice and my copy of it, which is not distinguished in any way, is also something I love. Because the text is not just a text, available on an electronic device nobody could possibly love. It is a physical thing, paper, cardboard, cloth, glue, ink. It has a feel and a familiarity that makes it yours in a way no electronic gadget can supply.

The only thing I have from my parents' house, my house, besides a few pictures and the family photographs, is a small round table that holds books in a revolving case beneath the top. I asked my mother for it and she gave it to me on the spot. I remember my father after he retired reading the World Book Encyclopedia, which they had bought for my brother and me to help us with our schoolwork, volume by volume, cover to cover. Sometimes I wonder where it came from, the various intellectual passions, the insatiable curiosity. Was it indeed my father? Does it come from forebears at all? I don't know. I'm probably living out my own mythology, trying to be the hero of my own story, the last independent scholar. It certainly seems so. And so it may be: learning may not be the way to enlightenment. But it's the way I chose and I'm not going to change now. What's the Zen saying? Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever. Exactly. If I thought I were going to die tomorrow, what would I be doing now? I would be reading one of my books.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


December 16, 2010

Our front porch is enclosed and semi-heated, although it faces northwest and nothing facing northwest, which is where Canadian cold fronts come from, is ever going to be really warm here except in summer; but it doesn't matter, we don't use it anyway even though I have a large desk there. I actually work upstairs. The large desk mostly holds the bills. And the room itself holds books. When people walk in through our front door they pass through this room, and it is not uncommon for them to say, I love this room, or words to that effect. They have a vision of themselves taking a year off and finding a nice chair someplace and burrowing through the books to their hearts' content, nothing to stop them from reading and reading, and reading some more.

I had lunch with my friend Ken Robbins today and he told me about somebody he knows, or knows of, whom he calls a "peripatetic reader." This is a person who reads while he walks, holding a book in front of his face as he ambles down the street or across the room; he reads, he says, up to 18 hours a day, and at the same time manages to navigate the world. Remarkable. As a result, says Ken, he's incredibly erudite. I also would sometimes like to be incredibly erudite, drop appropriate quotations into conversation, add facts to arguments that completely destroy one position or maybe its opposite, call in examples from Darwin or refer to Shroedinger's cat while discussing Keats: dazzle, in short. I've never been particularly dazzling. Not aggressive enough, too unsure of my ground. My trouble is that I never think I know enough. I have all these books, 7,000 of them, but I don't pretend to know all that much. Well, OK--sometimes I do pretend, but in fact I'm well aware of my limitations.

The truth is, it's not all that easy living with so many books. They sit on your shelves and stare at you, wanting your attention. You look at a book you decided to keep when it came in for review and you wonder, what happened to the great interest I once had in this subject? and you realize, the interest has faded. Or it's there, dormant, but you don't have time for it now. And it's not just the time reading takes. I sometimes pick a book off my shelf to read and find that I've already read it; the margins are pockmarked with my notes. Yet I have no memory of what's in the book, and I don't remember when I might have read it. Are the filing cabinets in my brain full? Can nothing more be jammed in there? And books do take so much time. In the midst of life, bedeviled by errands, meals, friendship, sleep, movies and TV, parties, gardening, and the endless task of straightening up the house, it might take months to read a really long book. It took months to read Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder, which I loved; but it was a really long book, I had to fit it in to my other work, and into my life, and it took months. Who has months? Sometimes I think I should have just one book, or a few. Three hundred years ago most people had a Bible, and not much else. Maybe a Book of Common Prayer, or an almanac. They would know those books extremely well, I imagine. Whereas I know a great many books, none of them well at all. If I had to confine myself to a hundred books out of my library, which ones would I choose? Probably they would all be classics, books that the experience of centuries of readers has certified as what lasts. But think of the difficulty of so drastically refurnishing one's mind! I might be too old to do it. The fox knows many things, as Tolstoy said, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Well, I'm a fox by nature. I can't be content to know just one thing well; I have to know a great many things, if only superficially.

I've had two significant dreams about books in my life. In one, I came upon a large tower of books, a four-sided bookcase three feet taller than myself, and all the books in it were bound in leather, they were eighteenth-century books, and they were mine. But they were ruinous. Water damage, fire, something had ruined them. In the second, a similar event: upstairs on the third floor of my dacha was my library, low bookshelves under the windows on all floor walls of the room. They were all in Russian. But the roof was open to the sky and the books were soggy, unreadable, papier mache. I have no idea whether these dreams about books have any significance. But they were deeply disturbing, and I have not forgotten them.

And at the back of my mind, Socrates, who professed to know nothing, and was always asking his pupils for instruction and then reasoning with them to show them that they, too, did not know what they thought they knew. That's one reason, perhaps, why history attracts me--at least it's over. It's not still happening. It's fixed. But of course it is still happening; history drives through us like, to mangle Dylan Thomas's line, the flower drives through its green fuse. We are the fruit of all the centuries before us, and what those centuries were, what they meant, is not revealed until we come along, and understand it at last. And, obviously, this is a continuous process. So, Socrates: there is no solid knowledge. We drift about on a sea of uncertainty, and for the most part this sea is far too deep for any anchor to find bottom. I could read all 7,000 books in the house and I would not be any closer to wisdom.

Well, maybe a little.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


December 7, 2010:

I woke up at five-thirty this morning from a dream in which somebody was pounding on the door, or the floor, and could not go back to sleep. Yesterday's blog entry--that poem--I knew something was wrong. You always know something is wrong. I can't tell you how many versions of it I've been through, lengthening the list, shortening it, trying to find out what it needed. It needed something. Even when I had posted it yesterday I kept going back to it, changing a word, two words, but focusing on the last line. It was the last line that really bothered me. It was weak, didn't quite convey what I wanted, which was that sense at night when you hear the trains in the distance, as I used to do when I was a child, and you can't sleep, that sense of distance, of things passing away and passing you by, of loss and loneliness; and all that was congruent with the mood of the poem and I thought it was just a matter of finding the right combination that suggested that. But it didn't feel right. It felt clumsy and obvious.

So here I am, fresh from my own sleeplessness, after struggling with this and trying to doze off and failing, with the newest version. I can't promise that I'm done with it, but this one is better, I think, and it tells us more about this person and how much he's holding inside; and maybe it even says something about pain. I don't know. You tell me.


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.

The five doors out of the house, the seventeen inside.

A cherry side table we both wanted once.

Your translation of Proust, and mine.

The wall clock in the kitchen, still ticking.

The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.

Lamplight and solitude in the long evening.

Train whistles screaming through the night.

Let me add that my mother had an old cherry side table, and my brother took it into his house when she died. It was a beautiful table. The doors into the house are now "out of the house," the connotation being that the house is, in a sense, a trap; and why five? I once lived in a big old house that had five such doors, during my first marriage. It also had more than sixty windows. Poems are made of these bits and pieces, personal and impersonal. We've all seen wedding photos in Tiffany frames, but I've never owned one. Wall clocks always work, don't they, and go on working, and time always passes.

But I say too much. I like this version better, and it's now after eight, and I can forget about this poem for a while. Until I see something in it, at any rate, that shouldn't be there, or something else that should. I'll let you know if that happens.

Monday, December 6, 2010


December 6, 2010:
I sent four of my poems to TLS (the Times Literary Supplement) on Saturday. I wrote them all many years ago, when I still had ambitions to be a published poet. At the time I had no reason to think I couldn't be a published poet; TLS had taken a poem of mine at that time, and shortly after several other publications took poems. The late Ian Hamilton was the poetry editor of TLS then, my college friend Michael Fried was Hamilton's friend and living in England as a Rhodes Scholar, he recommended the poem to Hamilton, and voila! there I was, in print. TLS was the first publication to pay me for something I had written; ultimately a check came for $7.63, or something close to that--three pounds in English money. The poem ran right above a review of one of Norman Mailer's books.

But in the end I was not moved to pursue poetry as a career path. I had always wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily a poet; I wrote poems mostly because I had no time to do anything else. I was working full-time, I was married, I had children, I commuted back and forth to the city, and the work I was doing involved writing. Under those circumstances, writing anything more ambitious than a poem was more or less out of the question. So that's what I did, write poems, working in the little spare time I had, and learning in the process how to bring a piece of writing to an end. In lyric poems, the end is everything; if you can do endings you have taken a very big step in learning how to write.

Poetry as a career path, however, was something else. Just about nobody makes a living at it. In those days, and even more so today, to survive as a poet you either had to teach, like almost every poet then and now who didn't have an independent income, or you had to have another job. Wallace Stevens, insurance lawyer. William Carlos Williams, doctor. John Ashbery, art critic and editor at Art News. I disliked teaching and wasn't very good at it, so that was out. I could have gone on with poetry after the peculiar writing job I had came to an end--I was a wealthy businessman's personal historian; when he died, so did the job; but he left me and his other personal employees seven years salary, tax-free, as a parting gift--since I then had a bit of money. But the money wasn't going to last all that long, and then what? Another job? Try teaching again? No thanks. It wasn't only the lack of an income, it was a certain amount of distaste for what a poetry career involved, especially the nasty competitiveness that was part of it, too many ambitious people striving for too few rewards. I wasn't that ambitious. I knew I was good, but I didn't think I could be great. I still wrote poems from time to time, but getting them into print no longer seemed that important. I wrote them for myself, for my own pleasure, and as a form of verbal play. When a line came to me, I pursued it. Many of them emerged from pain. Poetry is one of the great clarifiers when it comes to pain.

Ultimately I wound up with about twenty, maybe twenty-five unpublished poems that I liked well enough to keep in my files, and in the past couple of years I've been looking at them again and fiddling with them. And it's interesting: the original feelings that led to these poems have softened, if not entirely dissolved, and I can see their faults much more clearly. With that has come the insight necessary to find ways to make those faults go away. They are now much better poems than they were originally. Michael Fried and Thomas Carnicelli, who was our official "class poet" and I, all of us trying to write poems at the time, used to talk in college about the poem as a made object, a verbal artifact, and we all knew that what we were writing didn't have much to do with what bad poets think of as "self-expression." We were trying to make art. Our feelings had little to do with it, they were merely the occasion, the spark that kindled the process of making. And that process is fascinating, both to pursue and to watch oneself pursue. It's a little like doing a crossword puzzle, but much more intense and much more difficult, and you find yourself wondering every time, can you do it? Can you find the right word, the turn of phrase, the gut punch at the end that doubles your reader over with its power? And because I have no attachment to publication, though that would be nice, or to a career as a poet, the whole thing has a purity about it that I really like. So I'm back to it.

How long does it take, then, to write a poem? Sometimes thirty or forty years. I remember reading Rilke on this, in his Letters to a Young Poet, where he talks about the poem working its way into your blood; not until then, he said, should you write. Or Alexander Pope, who advised the wannabes who sent him poems to read to put them in a drawer and lock that drawer and not open it for a year or two. I speak from experience; it's good advice.

I have no idea whether TLS will take these poems, and it doesn't matter. I'd like to see them in print, but I'll be happy to have written them even if they never see the light of day. They're good, I know that, and I'm satisfied with them, and I'll send copies to my friends who read poetry, or write it, and let it go at that. Or maybe to the handful of people who follow this blog.

Here's one of those poems:


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.
The five doors into the house, the seventeen inside.
A cherry table we both wanted once.
Your translation of Proust, and mine.
The wall clock in the kitchen, still ticking.
The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.
Lamplight and solitude in the long evening.
Train whistles at night, with their associations.