I was saddened to hear that poet Miller Williams died on January 2, 2015.
I’d been reading his work for years and finally got to meet him in 1997 during Writers Week, a literary festival at our school. My pal, Gary Anderson, and I picked him up at a bookstore downtown, where he was reading and signing, and drove him to a hotel near our school, where we would pick him up again in the morning for his visit. We started out a little star struck, that’s how nerdy we are, but he put us at ease right away with his soft-spoken, humble demeanor. He sat in the backseat and talked nonstop about the South, Flannery O’Connor, his work, and poetry in general. Gary and I kept glancing at each other, thinking the same thing: Our own private Miller Williams lecture.
You wouldn’t guess that a 67-year-old poet from Arkansas would have much to say to a crowd of high school students, but they knew they were in the presence of a grand gentleman, full of wisdom and compassion. And hope. We’d prepared the audience, so a few raised their hands to request certain poems, which touched him. This was a gift to him. But he made those students feel as if he was the one privileged to be there.
He spoke also about the pressures of being Clinton’s inaugural poet. At the security gate before the inauguration, he realized he’d forgotten the official papers needed to enter. From his rented car, he told the guard, “Well, I’m scheduled to speak…you know, the poet.” The guard said, “You know what would happen if I let you in, and you’re not who you say you are?” And Williams replied, “You know what would happen if I’m telling the truth, and you don’t let me in?”
After he spoke to two large groups of students in our auditorium, we ushered him to our lounge, where he spoke to teachers and students with the same generosity that he’d shown in the car. He seemed supremely comfortable, as if there was nowhere else he wanted to be. This wasn’t an act. This was how he lived.
After his visit, we sent him thank-you letters from students, and he responded graciously, asking us to send along his own gratitude to them. We kept in touch by email now and then. We asked if maybe he’d visit again, with his daughter, the singer Lucinda Williams. He responded favorably, but at the time, her career was taking off, and scheduling the two of them together would have been difficult, he said. But I am pleased that the two of them shared the stage elsewhere now and then.
When I read obituaries or listen to eulogies, I’m often left with this feeling: Boy, I wish I knew that person better. If you have that same sentiment while reading this, well, all you need to do is turn to Miller Williams’s poetry. He will be your best friend, patient and wise and there. Always there.
As I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent book on Albert Einstein, I’m realizing something: when I read a biography, my reactions follow a rough pattern.
1. I FEEL CONTEMPT. Not for the subject of the bio—not usually at least. But for the others who don’t yet recognize the greatness in the person. For instance, for many years no one would hire him. How can you not offer Albert Einstein a job, you idiot? This is Einstein.
Early in his life, one of Einstein’s elementary teachers wanted him ousted, probably because he was Jewish. She claimed that he “spoils the respect of the class.”
2. CONTEMPT IS TEMPERED BY IRONY. Many universities ignored Einstein’s job applications. Had he been hired, he would have worked within an academic system that stifled free thought. He settled for a job at a patent office, where his boss urged him to question everything, which carried over into his thinking on relativity and other concepts that changed the world.
I haven’t read the new bio on Richard Pryor, but I listened to an interview on NPR. He complained to one teacher about being called the N word by classmates. The teacher replied, “Well, that’s what you are.” Ah, but another teacher, she noticed that Pryor, who was always tardy, enjoyed entertaining his classmates. She made a deal with him: “Show up on time, and you can entertain in class.” He was never tardy again.
3. I FEEL SMARTER AND DUMBER. I usually enter a bio with a few preconceived notions, then feel dumb if those notions are way off, then feel smart because now I know. Einstein, for example, did not fail math. He did very well in school, especially if the subject matter lent itself to thinking in pictures, which is how he approached problems.
4. I WANT TO BELIEVE I’LL LEARN SECRETS. About life, how to live, how to overcome adversity, how to define success. For example, Einstein admired physicist Ernst Mach for his “incorruptible skepticism.” Without this skepticism, Einstein would have been a long forgotten patent clerk.
5. I WANT TO BE THERE. Einstein would have long discussions with friends, sometimes lasting till morning. In the summer, they’d climb mountains, watch the sun rise. Sometimes Einstein would play his violin. In the morning, they would hike down and have coffee at a local café. Breakfast with Einstein. I’d go see that movie.
6. I DON’T WANT TO FINISH THE BOOK. Because while I’m reading, Einstein is breathing and thinking and playing music and drinking coffee. Now. Never ending.
I’d be curious to know about your patterns. What am I missing here?
A while ago I wrote about the psychology of lending books. The other day my daughter asked if she could borrow one of my books. Having read my old post, she kidded, “I know you have a thing about lending books.”
I said I used to have a thing. Now I have a new thing. Allow me to clarify.
I drive to the bookstore. I buy a book. A book with actual, aromatic pages. I own the book. It’s a beautiful country. I lend the book to my good pal, Joe. Day by day, Joe begins to believe he owns the book. I don’t fault Joe. I understand Joe. I’ve been Joe.
Now, when I “lend” books, I view this as giving the book away. Joe can believe the book is his all he wants. I have no expectation of getting the book back.
There are some books that I deem valuable and would like to keep, first editions, for instance, especially if they’re signed. In that case, what I will do, seriously, is I will go out and buy another copy of the book, a paperback maybe or a second printing of a hardcover, which not only supports the writer but allows me to envision that copy being passed along to multiple readers—that is, if Joe is willing to part with "his" book.
Maybe I do have “a thing,” since I’m spending all this time thinking about and responding to this subject. It probably has something to do with the trauma I felt when my mom threw away a box of pristine Batman and Superman comic books when I was fifteen, pristine because I always placed great value on all those splashes of color and talk bubbles. I need comic book therapy maybe.
Yesterday I posted a list of 15 books to give as gifts this holiday season. Yeah, like my brain was going to stop at 15. So here are another dozen titles that the reader in your life will enjoy.
1. RISK POOL or NOBODY’S FOOL by Richard Russo
2. BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter
3. BLUE DIARY by Alice Hoffman
4. BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose
5. CANADA by Richard Ford
6. STONE DIARIES by Carol Shields
7. VAN GOGH by Steven Naifeh & Gregory Smith
8. JOHNNY CASH by Robert Hilburn
9. COMPOSED by Roseanne Cash
10. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion
11. THE OPTIMISTIC CHILD by Martin Seligman
12. MISTAKES WERE MADE BUT NOT BY ME by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson
This tailored list may be too specific for your needs. If that’s the case, send me a description of someone on your gift list, and I will send you a book suggestion.
While some of the descriptions that follow may seem like nonsense—how dare you—I want to stress that I love and recommend all these books. Really.
If you care about the world of books, about the future of books, please don’t order online from the big A place. Instead, independent bookstores are very helpful. And Barnes & Noble has good deals. Every time one of their holiday commercials comes on, I become giddy. A commercial for a bookstore! The world becomes right again for 60 seconds.
Here we go. Books to give!
1. For the 50+ year old who doesn’t like to read but doesn’t mind hearing a little gossip now and then, here’s the perfect book: ME AND DEAN by JERRY LEWIS.
2. For the Italian or wannabe Italian in your life, who misses the old days when the old stockinged women in the neighborhood would gather each summer evening on lawn chairs, sipping coffee and nibbling on coffee cake, while the men smoked and gambled on bocce: THE FORTUNATE PILGRIM by MARIO PUZO. Yes, that Puzo, who wrote this more intimate novel about four years before the seminal, The Godfather, another fine book that worked out pretty well for him.
3. For the speed reader, who can finish this book before the movie comes out near the end of December, which needs to happen because this is one remarkable chronicle: UNBROKEN by LAURA HILLENBRAND.
4. For the English major, who loves beautiful sentences and still writes and mails letters, and who keeps saying she wants to write a book herself: SOMEONE by ALICE McDERMOTT.
5. For the slightly quirky guy on your list, who often says things that confuse you: UNDERWORLD by DON DeLILLO. I won’t pretend to understand this book in its entirety, but it’s a masterpiece, especially the first long chapter about the famous 1951 game between the Dodgers and Giants that features the “shot heard around the world,” a homerun crack by Bobby Thomson, which you can view on Youtube.
6. For the Beatles fan, who isn’t much of a reader because an avid fan would have already read this: THE BEATLES: THE BIOGRAPHY by ROB SPITZ. Crisp writing, detailed, and balanced. Another Beatles book that’s not as balanced but offers insights you won’t find elsewhere: PAUL McCARTNEY: MANY YEARS FROM NOW by BARRY MILES. The guy was there, and he includes dozens of direct quotes from Sir Paul.
7. For the voracious reader in your life who has fallen behind on recent published books and who might have missed one of the best books of 2014: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by ANTHONY DOERR. I can’t praise this book enough. I need to read it again. I just finished his previous novel, too, ABOUT GRACE, which is equally powerful. Give this person both books!
8. For the least prudish person on your list: ANCIENT LIGHT by JOHN BANVILLE. This Irish writer is not afraid to show off his skills, which strikes me as old-fashioned yet modern at the same time. He’s one of the best writers working today.
9. For the thinker in your life, the one who asks interesting questions and is always curious about your answer: THINKING, FAST AND SLOW by DANIEL KAHNEMAN. Kahneman may not be the most eloquent writer in the world, but he’s clear, and the studies he cites, many of them conducted by himself, are fascinating.
10. For the most sentimental person in your life: LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ. This book reads like one long, spellbinding dream that you don’t want to wake from.
11. For the relative or friend who can quote Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: MARCH by GERALDINE BROOKS. I’ve never even read Little Women, but I still loved this book, told from the point of view of the father of the little women.
12. For the delusional person in your life, the chronically upbeat one, who thinks the fifties were a time of innocence: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by RICHARD YATES. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, but I can’t forget it.
13. For the reader who’s not afraid of a challenge: AMERICAN PASTORAL by PHILIP ROTH. I’ve read this book several times, and I’m still not quite sure how he gets away with his masterful point of view technique.
14. For the calmest person you know, who can use a little jolt of gothic fright to curl the blood: A RELIABLE WIFE by ROBERT GOOLRICK.
15. For the person who got C’s in high school and who didn’t read the assigned books in English and who barely made it through college but who is now the most curious person you know: THE GRAPES OF WRATH by JOHN STEINBECK. You probably forgot that Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for literature. There was a reason for that.
OK, send me a description of your gift recipients!
You may have heard of this book because of the companion PBS series: How We Got to Now, by Steven Johnson. The book is part history, part science, and reads like a detective novel.
Here’s an example of the fascinating connections that Johnson weaves, what he calls the Hummingbird Effect. In the 1440’s Guttenberg created the printing press. Before this, not many people read; thus, not many people knew they were farsighted. This knowledge, along with the increased opportunity to read, created a demand for glasses, which inspired a surge in lens research, which led to the invention of the microscope, which ultimately led to the study of cells in the body. If this alone doesn’t make you want to go out and buy this book, I don’t know what else I can add.
Okay, I’ll add this. In a related thread, the fall of Constantinople in 1204, which I believe is Turkey now, led glassmakers to migrate to Venice. But since Venice included many wooden buildings that could easily catch fire under the intense heat needed to make glass, these craftsmen moved to the nearby island of Murano, where they refined glass, which led to the invention of lenses (which comes from the Latin lentes, or lentils, because they have the same shape), which led, again, to the microscope, and you know the rest.
I was a poor history student in school. Mostly my fault. But I wonder if I would have been less sleepy-eyed and slack-jawed if these sorts of connections were taught. Nah! My mind was mush. Not 1960’s hippy mush. I just needed more time to incubate. I’m a slow learner. Steady but slow. Even today I don’t feel fully hatched.
Incidentally, I visited the beautiful island of Murano a couple of summers ago. Those craftsmen are still there, part of a vast lineage that has contributed quite directly to the study of diseases. I wonder if they even know.
After reading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, about a flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population within a few days, I realized that this might be the first book I’ve ever read about an apocalypse. I don’t think 1984 would count, right? Or Brave New World? In both books, the world as we know it may be gone, but systems reign. But imagine everything coming to a halt in a matter of weeks. No electricity, no fuel, no Internet, no White Castle. You’re shuddering imagining a society with no sliders.
If our thoughts ever do veer toward wondering what would happen under such dire conditions—and how can they not, given the shock and awe of headlines about Ebola—the details always remain blurry. It’s too damn overwhelming to think about. As I began reading this novel, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about these grim prospects. But I soon realized that, yes, I did. In fact, it didn’t take long to be drawn in. Maybe because we all take perverse pleasure in gaping at breakdowns? Or more precisely, Mandel’s voice is commanding and eloquent and demands our full attention.
It’s no surprise that this book has been nominated for a National Book Award. While the apocalyptic angle is compelling and fully developed, spanning a period of about fifteen years, Mandel also depicts how particular lives remain intertwined. You wonder throughout how the seemingly disparate pieces will fit together, but in the end, they do, beautifully. It’s an ambitious story, and Mandel’s vision is sparkling.
By the way, I heard on the radio yesterday that nearly 25,000 people died last year as a result of antibiotic resistance. Yet, we don’t hear much alarm over this. As of this writing, one person in the U.S. has died from Ebola. We’re all pretty stupid when it comes to worry.
I go through spells when I ignore fiction. Then I ache for a novel I can savor. Well, I have found one: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I found myself handling the book gently, reading slowly, pausing, flipping back to previous sections. This is a masterful work.
The narrative switches back and forth between a young blind girl living in occupied France and a German cadet in training with the Third Reich. The chapters are short, the drama is intense, the truths are precise. A lovely book.
In nonfiction, I just finished Robert Hilburn’s biography, Johnny Cash: The Life. I haven’t read much about Cash, so I can’t say this is the definitive bio, but it’s damn good. The details are so richly conveyed that Hilburn doesn’t need to offer psychological theories about what drove Cash. He doesn’t need to provide lofty sociological frameworks. He simply tells the story and trusts the reader to understand why Cash was so driven and often lost and always taken with the downtrodden in our world.
I didn’t realize that some of Cash’s best known hits were recorded when he was in his 20s. I did know that some of his best work was recorded during the last few years of his life, and the section on his collaboration with Ric Rubin is especially fascinating. Even if you’re not a big Cash fan (and if not, just listen), you will still enjoy this story.
After I finished the book, I happened to catch Walk the Line on television. I liked the movie when I first saw it, but after reading the bio, the movie strikes me as caricature. Read the book. And listen to When the Man Comes Around or his version of Hurt.
A peculiar thing happens when one lends a book. Are you already nodding? Do you already know what I mean?
Here’s what I mean. The borrower, with the book now in his possession, begins to believe the book belongs to him! Not right away. But the act of seeing the book on his desk, then on a nearby table, then maybe on a shelf, tossed there loosely but later tucked vertically between other volumes, creates a blur of ownership. With each passing week, the book takes on squatting rights.
The reason I know this so well is that I’ve been both lender and borrower. I still have a handful of books I’ve never returned, mainly because I lost contact with the owner. But between borrowing the book and losing contact, there grew a period when I had the opportunity to return what did not belong to me. But I didn’t. Mainly because I envisioned a day when I’d sit in the backyard and leisurely pore through this book that had been so generously recommended and lent. (I’ve read somewhere that when we buy books, we’re really buying the time that we will devote to reading it.)
For this reason, I’ve always been reluctant to lend out books. I’m in touch with some of the people who still have my books, but I never say anything. Maybe because I know how they feel. If I asked them to return my book, which now feels as if it belongs to them, they’d become resentful. And I wouldn’t blame them.
I have gotten better about lending books. Now, when I do, I try to imagine that I’ve given the borrower not the book but the gift of time. In fact, I don’t expect to ever see the book again. When it is returned, as sometimes miraculously happens, I’m always a little surprised. In most cases, I’ve forgotten the book was gone. Gazing upon a forgotten friend like this is a little exhilarating.
Lately what I’ve been doing is shedding, giving away books, something I could not have imagined years ago. It’s liberating. I’m freeing up not only my shelves but also my time. But the process of choosing which books to loosen from my clutches hasn’t been easy. I started with books owned for many years but never read, the ones I grudgingly admit I probably never will read. I’ve now moved to books read but with only moderate interest. Just because I wasn’t crazy about these select “duds” doesn’t mean others won’t devour them. I’m also giving away paperbacks that I liked but are not worth saving. I have hundreds and hundreds more that fall into the category of personally meaningful, and I can’t imagine parting with these quite yet—or ever. I think the key will be to find a dear friend or family member who will treasure the books as much as I do. I have to know that they’ll find a good home, that someone will be as stingy with them as I have been.
I can’t stop reading Nicholson Baker’s novels, though I hesitate to call them novels. They read like mini-essays that include quiet observations that you might find in a poem. Precise and vivid and peaceful. You feel like you’re sitting on a couch next to the author listening to him spin little yarns of wisdom. In this last one I read, A Box of Matches, the entries are made up entirely of his thoughts each morning as he rises early and approaches the fireplace. No plot. No forward thrust. But always engaging. If you’ve been meaning to read more poetry but can’t force yourself to slow down to do so (because reading poetry is more demanding?), try reading Baker.
Speaking of poetry, here’s another novel full of some of the richest sentences you’ll read anywhere: Alice McDermott’s newest book, Someone. There’s plenty of plot here, but McDermott offers it up in flashbacks and flash-forwards, all handled masterfully. The plot centers around a woman and her family, but the satisfaction in reading this book comes not from finding out what happens next but in sharing this character’s intimate glimpses into what it’s like to live a life. Some of the scenes are joyous and sweet, others are torturous in their specificity, especially one birthing scene that you won’t soon forget. This is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while.