Filed under: reading
There’s a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on reading in today’s NY Times, a tribute to the late Richard Poirier, whose work I confess I didn’t know–but am now eager to read. Poirier wrote about reading in slow motion–like the slow food movement–a step aside from our hyperlinking era.
I’ve pasted much of the essay below:
A Man of Good Reading By ALEXANDER STAR
The literary scholar Richard Poirier, who died last weekend at the age of 83, was one of the strong critics of his time. For five decades, Mr. Poirier taught literature at Rutgers University, where he founded Raritan, a quarterly named for the river that borders New Brunswick. He reached a broader public by collaborating with another man of letters, Edmund Wilson, to create the Library of America.
Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.
This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else. he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by “what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.”
As an English professor, too, Mr. Poirier was often at odds with his colleagues, whom he mockingly compared to bureaucrats: “Criticism in the spirit of the F.D.A. is intended to reduce your consumption of certain of the golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.” In the “canon wars” that raged on campuses and beyond in the 1980s —with multiculturalists feuding with traditionalists — Mr. Poirier faulted both sides.
For Mr. Poirier the act of writing — in particular the tradition of American writing that ran from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Wallace Stevens — was an assertion of individual power.
An advocate of “reading in slow motion,” Mr. Brower asked, simply: “What is it like to read this?”
Mr. Poirier took this question seriously. In painstakingly close readings, he showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote.
Mr. Poirier cherished self-contradiction. He helped enshrine the nation’s literary classics at the Library of America, but he also wrote that “works of art are not required to exist. There is nothing outside of them that requires their existence. If Shakespeare had never existed we would not miss his works, for there would be nothing missing.”
Literature was not sacred or even necessary. But it mattered enormously, because, at its most potent, it insisted that we not take ourselves, or our words, for granted. “We ought to be grateful to language,” Mr. Poirier wrote, “for making life messier than ever.” Or, as Wallace Stevens put it in a poem Mr. Poirier quoted again and again, “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.”
Filed under: reading
My new website is live and ready to go. I’m going to stop posting here, and start posting through the website, where all the previous posts have been moved, so after a few days, I won’t be visiting this separate blog any more. Join me at saraparetsky.com
Filed under: reading
Of one’s own death, what happens to all your emails, websites, blogs, bank accounts and bills with online only access? Searching for another topic, I came on a nifty article in Time Magazine, “How to Manage your online life when you’re dead.” There are several companies now that will store your details–passwords, and so on. They’ll check in with you periodically to see if you’re still alive, and if some number of e-mails go unanswered, they’ll release your information to a designated recipient–who has to present your death certificate in order to get access to your files.
I’ve actually often wondered about how my husband or estate would tell American Express and everyone else to cancel my accounts. These services seem to provide the answer. Now, all we can do is hope that they’re not run by enterprising 28-year-old hackers like Albert Gonzalez. Who, I gather, is not related to another criminal mastermind, a former US attorney general of (almost) the same name–Alberto Gonzalez was one of the key promoters of Bush’s policies on torture.
Filed under: reading
The New York Times Magazine has an essay of mine this morning in the “Lives” section. It’s about my husband’s and my experience with the French health system, with a side look at a French student of French eating disorders.
Filed under: U S Politics
A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost–in every major city there’s a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who’ve vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on people, making them grave and thoughtful. I never feel more fully engaged with the people I meet than I do in Germany.
My cousin Barb, in Ukraine with the Peace Corps, took a Kindle with her, and a mighty fine idea that was, too: remote from any English-language bookstores or libraries, she was able to bring a hundred or so texts overseas with her without needing all those boxes we used to lug to foreign parts. So I will say I am not adamantly opposed to the e-book.
However, I have tried reading on a Kindle and it doesn’t work for me. Even though I get how convenient it is, and even though I just my second copy of American Pharaoh because I couldn’t find the first in my thousands of books, I don’t find it easy to use. I’m sure I could get used to searching instead of flipping pages, although I like to see where I am physically in a novel–did this event or character appear early or late in the narrative? But the way the text is framed slows down reading. When you’re used to scanning a page, getting text one page at a time actually makes it harder to stay in the narrative flow.
I also prefer newspapers in print, especially since I live with someone, and we trade sections back and forth (we actually get 3 daily papers, so we often trade papers back and forth, sharing stories that have caught our eye.)
However, Green Apple Books in San Francisco has brought a whole new dimension to the Book v Kindle debate. I think these little video clips are highly entertaining, and you may enjoy them, too.
Filed under: reading
Strangers to Chicago, and even us hard-bitten natives, are wary of muggers in the parks and after dark. I recently learned that all last winter, as my dog and I were happily roaring around the Wooded Isle nature preserve near my home,
we were stalked all winter by a coyote that was living in the preserve. I saw it once from a distance and thought it was a German Shephered. Little did I know that as we were sliding on the ice, our silent companion was thinking of breakfast. Now I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough to go back out this coming winter.
I’ve seen foxes near my home, pheasant, and beavers, but the coyote is a first. Given that I live in a dense-packed neighborhood, roughly 50,000 people in a city of 3 million, these sightings always amaze me.