Why Bother?

Some ten years or so ago, a book of essays caught my eye on a Barnes & Noble sale table –  How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen.  This was after publication of The Corrections.  I had not read any of Franzen’s novels, but the title of the essay collection caught my attention.  I generally avoid like the plague books with “How To” in the title, but being where I was in life at the time (a subject for another post), I bought it.  One of my better decisions.

How to be Alone-Franzen

The essays are very personal – Franzen reveals much about himself.  They are also elegant, poignant, funny, despairing of our noisome modern culture, and mournful of “the obsolescence of serious art in general.”  Franzen notes in the introduction:

The particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays – the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture:  the question of how to be alone.

While every one of the essays is worth reading and regular re-reading, one in particular resonated with me – the famous (so I learned) “Harper’s Essay” published originally in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, revised for the How to be Alone collection and re-titled “Why Bother?”

“Why Bother” did a lot of things for me. It diagnosed my depression and self-inflicted isolation as “depressive realism.”  I liked that – so much more intellectual and philosophical sounding. I now understand that it’s not me who is sick,  it is the world, and that my reclusiveness is actually a healthy resistance to functioning in such a sick world.  As Franzen says, “Instead of saying I am depressed, you want to say I am right!”  

But still, he says, “all the available evidence suggests that you have become a person who’s impossible to live with and no fun to talk to.”  Yes, well, so be it.

In “Why Bother” Franzen also discusses his interviews with Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, a MacArthur Fellow, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford.  She was, he says, the “beacon in the murk” that helped him get back on track as a writer.  At the time of Heath’s interviews with Franzen, she was studying the audience for serious fiction in America, “which novelists like to imagine [as] a ‘general audience’ – a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book.”

Heath’s extensive research, however, pointed to something quite different. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she said, two things have to be in place:

 1.  The habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled’ when he or she was young.  In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same.

2. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader.   Young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest.  ‘A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,’ she said.  ‘If the parents are smart, they will forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her.  Otherwise, she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them.  Finding a peer can take place as late as college.  In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader.

Interestingly, Franzen remarked that he did not even meet the first criteria, that he did not remember either of his parents ever reading a book when he was a child, except aloud to him, and as to peer readers, he remembered only discovering two friends in junior high school with whom he could talk about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Without missing a beat, Heath replied:  “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader.  There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.  This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview.  People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children.  What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world.  But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary.  And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.  Though they aren’t present, they become your community.

Readers of the social-isolate variety (Heath also calls them ‘resistant’ readers) are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety.  If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness.

Franzen says that he felt that Heath was looking straight into his soul:  “And the exhilaration that I felt at her accidental description of me, in unpoetic polysyllables, was my confirmation of that description’s truth.  Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood:  these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

In a letter to Franzen, discussing his (Franzen’s) conflict between feeling that he should “Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream” and his desire to write about the things he felt closest to, the things he loved, Don Delillo wrote:

Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.  In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

Reading Franzen’s essay was like a lightning bolt of illumination.  I was that “social isolate” as a child.  My mother would take school library books away from me and tell me to “go play with the rest of the kids.”  Ours was not a reading household.  I remember finding a good hiding place to read under the high front porch of our rented house, cool and shaded in the hot summer.  But my mother found me out eventually – she always did.  Thus it was early on that I realized that I was different and – in my mother’s opinion – not in a good way.

Like Franzen with Shirley Heath’s research, I felt exhilaration when I read his essay, and I was glad I had been that isolated child, slipping into my imaginary community every chance I could get.   Glad that I still am.

To be recognized for what we are, simply not to be misunderstood, to save ourselves, to survive as individuals.  Why bother?  How can we not?



Remembrance of Love Past

It wasn’t a madeleine that broke the dam of memory. It was reading this:

“I love being in love with you.  It makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wished so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it.”

In a flash of a moment, I was decades back in time, awash in memories.  The image of his face the last time I saw him – his hair had grown past the point of his usual tolerance and a small lock over his right ear stuck out awkwardly.  Why does that memory, that image in my mind’s eye of one small unruly lock of hair, have the power still, after so many years, to hurt my heart?  It is a mystery to me, as love itself is a mystery – a mystery, an abyss of uncertainty and danger, an irresistible impulse.

I had been reading and and enjoying Michael Dirda’s Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, thoroughly engaged with his essays on “Life Lines”, “The Pleasures of Learning”, and “Work and Leisure” until I found myself in “The Books of Love,”  reading the James Schuyler quote above.  I stepped away from myself and thought about the effect of a chance reading of a few words, how another human being, whose existence I know nothing about and who knows nothing about mine, could understand with an insight so precise, exactly how I had felt.

And I thought about love, its mystery,  joy, pain, its residual power to render us powerless, even if only for a moment.

I began pulling old friends and acquaintances from the shelves to join Mr. Dirda.  What better counsel than the following?

Evelyn WaughEvelyn Waugh answered my first question:

After discovering that his wife had left him for another man, he said, “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live, but I am told that this is a common experience.”





Dianne Ackerman, in A Natural History of Love: 

Romantic love is a biological ballet, evolution’s way of making sure that sexual partners meet and mate, then give their child the care it needs to be healthy and make loving attachments of its own.  This is not a simple or fast process.  The human brain is so complex, the mind so ingenious, that biology and experience work hand in hand.  People undergo a series of crushes, infatuations and loves, and learn to make magnetic attachments, whose power they feel in their cells, in their bones.  It is as if they are two stars, tightly orbiting each other, each feeding on the other’s gravity.”

But why him? (or her?)

sir-frank-dicksee-british-painter1853-1928-e28093-leila-1892James Joyce, in Ulysses (quoted in Book by Book):

“. . . and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

The poetry of Sappho (quoted in Book by Book):

Eros make me shiver again,

Strengthless in the knees,

Eros gall and honey,

Snake-sly, invincible.


“If you pressed me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he and I was I.”

Anne Carson, in EROS, the Bittersweet, a book that explores literary and philosophical contradictions and paradoxes of romantic love:

“As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you.  That incursion is the biggest risk of your life.  How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you.  As you handle it, you come in contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way.  You perceive what you are, what you lack, and what you could be.  It is a mode of perception that is so different from ordinary perception that it is well-described as madness.  This mood is no delusion, in Socrates’ belief.  It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.  To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live.”

I loved him because he was he and I was I

But did I believe it would last forever?


La Rochefoucauld, bottomless font of bitter wisdom:

“Love is found in the one who loves, rather than in the one who is loved.  The pleasure of love lies in loving, and our own sensations make us happier than those we inspire.”


“In the last stages of love and life, we live for the pain and not the pleasure.”



Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower (quoted in Book by Book):

“A successful surgeon realizes that the woman with whom he grew infatuated when young has forgotten his name: ‘What means something to us, that we can name.  Sink, he told his hopes, sink like a corpse dropped into the river.  I am rejected, not for being unwelcome, not even for being ridiculous, but for being nothing.'”

Diane Ackerman:

” . . . a broken relationship rips the lining from the heart, crushes the rib cage, shatters the lens of hope, and produces a drama both tragic and predictable.  Wailing out loud or silently, clawing at the world and at one’s self, the abandoned lover mourns. . . First we protest and refuse to accept the truth, we keep thinking the loved one will magically return.  Next we sob a torrent of tears.  Then we sink into despair; the world sags under the dead weight of our pain.  And at long last we mourn.  In time, we gather our strengths like so many lost buttons and begin searching for a likely attachment once again.”

The regrets

Regrets for yielding to love.  Regrets for rejecting it.  Regrets for our choices.

Joseph Mitchell (quoted in Book by Book):

“I’m ninety-four years . . . and my mind is just a turmoil of regrets . . . In the summer of 1902 I came real close to getting in serious trouble with a married woman, but I had a fight with my conscience and my conscience won, and what’s the result?  I had two wives, good Christian women, and I can’t hardly remember what either of them looked like, but I can remember the face of that woman so clear it hurts, and there’s never a day passes I don’t think about her, and there’s never a day passes I don’t curse myself. ‘What kind of a timid, dried up, weevily fellow were you?’ I say to myself. ‘You should’ve said to hell with what’s right and what’s wrong, the devil take the hindmost.  You’d have something to remember, you’d be happier now.’  She’s out in Woodlawn, six feet under, and she’s been there twenty-two years, God rest her, and here I am, just an old, old man with nothing left but a belly and a brain and a dollar or two.” 

And a final grounding:

Dorothy Parker (quoted from memory, but I think I have it right):

“Oh I shall be ’til Gabriel’s trump,

Nostalgic for some distant dump;

And ever doomed to weep me dry

For some lost mediocre guy.”



Platero and I


PlateroPlatero is small, fluffy, soft; so soft on the outside that one would say he is all cotton, that he carries no bones.  Only the jet-dark mirrors of his eyes are hard as two scarabs of black crystal.

I let him loose and he runs to the meadow; warmly, hardly touching them, he brushes his nose against the tiny pink, sky-blue and golden yellow flowers . . . I call him sweetly:  “Platero?” and he comes to me at a gay little trot as though he were laughing, I do not know within what fancy world of jingles.

He eats whatever I give him.  He likes oranges, tangerines, muscatel grapes, all amber, purple figs with their crystalline tiny drops of honey.

He is tender and cuddly, as a little boy, as a little girl . . . but inside he is strong and dry as a stone.  When I ride him on Sunday through the last alleyways of the town, the men from the fields, dressed neatly and slow moving, stand still watching him.

“He’s got steel.”

Steel, yes.  Steel and moon silver at the same time.

Platero and I, written in the early 1900’s by Juan Ramón Jiménez, is a Spanish classic, a shimmering lyrical prose poem made up of short vignettes. Platero is the poet’s beloved burro.  Together Jiménez and Platero walk the fields and meadows of Andalusia and the alleyways of the author’s home village of Moguer.   The poet observes life, its joy and pain, in simple, ordinary occurrences, daily routines, the changes of seasons, and muses aloud to Platero, dumb and innocent witness.  Ordinary life takes on a poignant intensity.  As Louis Simpson remarks in the Introduction, “life is open to the earth and sky, whatever one sees.  Some things are terrible to see.”

I do not know how to leave here, Platero.  Who can leave him there, poor thing, without guide and protection?

He must have strayed from the boneyard.  I believe he does not see or hear us.  You saw him this morning by that same fence, his sad, dry misery lighted under the white clouds by the radiant sun and covered by moving islands of living flies, alien to the prodigious beauty of the winter day.  He would turn once around slowly, disoriented, lame on all four legs, and he would come around again to the same spot.  He has done nothing but shift his flank.  This morning he was facing west, now he faces east.

What a hurdle old age is, Platero!  There you see that poor friend, free and unable to move, even when spring is moving towards him.  Or is he already dead, like Bécquer, and remains still standing?  A child could draw his fixed outline against the evening sky.

There you see it . . . I have tried to push him but he does not move . . . Nor does he pay attention to my calls . . . It looks as if the agony of death has planted him to the ground . . .

Platero, he is going to die of cold against that high fence, tonight, as the north wind sweeps . . . I do not know how I can leave here; I do not know what to do, Platero.

But there is joy in living, all the same:

One day, the green canary, I do not know how or why, flew from his cage.  He was an old canary, a sad memento from a dead woman, and I never set him free for fear he might die of hunger or cold, or that the cats might eat him.  He flew about all morning among the pomegranates in the orchard, in the pine by the door, among the lilacs.  The children too remained all morning long sitting on the porch, fascinated by the brief flights of the yellowing bird.  Free, Platero idled among the rosebushes, playing with a butterfly.

In the evening, the canary came to the roof of the big house, and there he remained for a long while, shaking in the mild setting sun.  Suddenly, and without anyone knowing how or why, he appeared in his cage, joyful again.  What excitement in the garden.  The children jumped, clapping hands, laughing . . . Platero, touched by it all, in a surge of silvery flesh, like a tiny little goat, thrust his hoofs in the air, turned around on his legs in a crude waltz, and standing on his front legs, kicked the clear and warm air  . . .

Platero and I  is a wonderful and moving meditation on love, life, and the full acceptance of life, with all of its joy, its pain, and its finality.  Platero wishes only to live, enjoying everything gaily; the taste of a pomegranate, the yellow lilies and singing orioles in the orchard of La Piña where he is buried.   We are held close, lovingly, by Jiménez and Platero.  Simpson says it so perfectly – before such love the mental barrier we think of as death must fall.

In the Country of Books

It is only fitting, I think, that my first post should tell you a little about the book that inspired me to start this blog.

http://www.amazon.com/In-Country-Books-Commonplace-Readings/dp/1848760612/ref=sr_1_2_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1401921833&sr=8-2&keywords=Katzev In the Country of Books, by Richard Katzev, Ph.D., is at once delightful and fascinating.  In reading the first few pages, you know you are in the company of a fellow reader who “gets it,” one who understands and appreciates the lure of language and the magic and majesty of literature.

Page from Jefferson's Commonplace BookIn reading, especially in history and biography, I had noticed references to commonplace books and, from the context, had a general idea of what they were.  But after reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson and learning about the commonplace books he kept from boyhood, I became really curious.

So I did what every other thinking person of an enquiring mind would do – I googled “commonplace books!”   Eventually, I found my way to In the Country of Books.   What a lucky find.  Dr. Katzev is a dedicated journalist of readings, and he shares many of his interesting entries in his book.  But he has also delved deeply into the tradition of commonplace books and reading journals, the compulsion that some of us have to record and annotate what we read, and ultimately,  in his words, “the experience of the readers, how literature enters their lives, and possibly changes them.”

In the Preface of his book, Dr. Katzev quotes Proust:

In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity.  There is no false amiability with books.  If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to. 

I’m looking forward to many more evenings with these friends.