She was dazzled by the carbon paper.  "I don't understand how this works!" she said, running her finger down each side.  I showed her how to put it between two clean sheets of paper in order to make a copy.  She's fascinated.  Astonished.

It's the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school.  She had a month between commitments so I hired her to help me sort through old files.  We got into a cabinet that I haven't opened since moving it into the keep-out room 22 years ago.

There was a fat file labelled "poems in redundant drafts."  Many versions of poems I was working on in the mid-eighties.  (Why I felt compelled to keep all of the drafts is a question I don't feel qualified to answer.)  "I wrote on a typewriter," I told her.  "Typed out a poem, and then I made revisions in pen or pencil and then I typed it again."  Three or four versions in a day, according to the dates at the top of each sheet.  I used carbon paper to keep a copy of the one I mailed to the magazines.  She can't quite visualize it.  The unconnected world.

I tell her about traveling with a heavy portable (luggable) computer back in 1990.  About modems and phone lines and disk drives that had their own power supplies.  "You don't know what a floppy disc is, do you?"  She shakes her head, trying to peer through me into the distant past.  I tell her about taking the silver dip pen and a bottle of ink and a volume of Tom Jefferson's complete works into the class I was teaching about the internet and copyright.  That was in 2000 and the students were in their late teens. The kids passed the pen and bottle around and gingerly wrote their names. I held up the book, "Now imagine using that to write all of this." They were impressed, but they still had bits of memories of a pre-internet world.  But Josie was born in 2005.

Carbon paper.  Typewriters.  I didn't attempt to explain a mimeograph machine.  She'd had a similar reaction a year and a half ago when her Mom gave her a Crosley turntable and a vinyl record for Christmas.  She'd turn the record over.  "Why does it have two sides?  I don't understand how it works!"

In my study, with the amazing carbon sheet in hand she said it again, but then, "But my phone, the CDs, DVDs, I don't understand how any of it works!"  She's brilliant at using the devices in her world, of course.  But she has no comprehension of how they work.

I turned her age in 1971.   When my Dad told me about the world he lived in as a boy, thirty-five years earlier, I could understand how it worked.  We lived in the same electro-mechanical world, principles established during the industrial revolution.  Television wasn't around yet, but you could imagine it as an extension of the radio.  When it arrived, he knew how to tinker with it.  Jet engines were built from the same underlying dynamics as automobile engines.  Things got faster and more efficient from his boyhood to mine, but the technologies were fundamentally the same.  He understood how the things in my boyhood worked, and I knew the same about his.

The half century following the invention of the moveable type press is the incunabula period, European civilization being reshaped by the impact of inexpensive, uniformly replicable books, and the technological and cultural transformations they set in motion.  Our Gutenberg moment, analogous to the days those first printed books went on sale, occurred in the fall of 1994 when Netscape was released -- the first widely available graphic internet browser. 

By 1500, printed books were no longer curiosities, game attempts at emulating the handmade books of previous centuries.  They were the standard means of knowledge transmission, with dozens of printers and publishers across Europe vying to tap into the new markets.  Among the crucial innovations was the widespread adoption of the size called octavo – a book that could easily fit into a saddlebag.  New knowledge spanning the continent as fast as a rider could take it.

Our incunabula period ended when the iPhone launched, barely a dozen years after Netscape.  Now Josie carries the internet in her hip pocket.  That feels natural.  A world of carbon paper and typewriters is nearly inconceivable.   I straddle the two worlds, writing in my leather-bound journal with a good fountain pen, then shifting to my laptop to write things I can easily share.  I'm not nostalgic for the world we're leaving behind.  I feel lucky that I get to taste them both and that I can tell Josie tall tales about the ways of the world before.




Heaney At The Hirshhorn

Watched him chat politely.  They'd hand him a book.  He'd ask a question, then nod, sign, hand it back smiling.  Then he’d look out over the big crowd loosely lined up, inching toward the table. Cloud of curly hair, the thickets of sideburns framing his face, kind eyes, inquisitive, the rectangle glasses perched on the big nose.  So familiar.  It was a loud space, excited happy chatter bouncing off the polished surfaces outside the auditorium.  The reading had been a great success.  He was funny and self-deprecating, leaven for the deep seriousness of the poems.  He enjoyed performing.  He was good at it.  His voice rolled across the cadences, the troubled history of Ireland wound round his own humble beginnings, the precision of his Belfast accent on the d, the clackety-clack roll of the r.  He was still eight years from the Nobel, but he was the most famous poet alive.

When Sandy and I were half a dozen or so people back, a quizzical look crossed his face as he saw us.  Now, after each signing, he cast the same look toward us.  Bit of a smile.  Trying to remember.  Finally at the table, I handed him Station Island.  He said, apologetically, “I know we’ve met before…”  I was shy, tentative.  “Yes, I brought you to Oshkosh…”  “Oshkosh!” he leapt up, huge grin, laughing, grabbed my hand with both of his.  “Oshkosh!  That was the wildest night I’ve ever spent in America!”  He signed “for Scott & Sandy  Yippee for Oshkosh!  Seamus Heaney  1.2.87”  We pledged to write to each other. 

I’d no idea what I was doing five years earlier when I invited him.  I was the editor of The Wisconsin Review, the school’s lit mag.  I had some money for programming.  He’d recently started teaching at Harvard and signed with an agency to do a college tour.  I booked him. 

A year before that, fall of 1981, we’d been going to Fred’s every Wednesday night to listen to Fire & Ice, the jazz quartet.  Fred, taciturn Chippewa, had a little dive near the river, and there were plenty of nights when the number of people in the band exceeded the number of us sitting along the bar.  So we got to know the regulars.  Segnitz taught at UWO, the local outpost of the vast state university system.  He was the Review’s advisor and eventually he told me he could arrange for me to take over as editor when I started grad school in January.  If I was interested.  Willing.

When I was six and home with a fever, upstairs in the small bedroom on the east side of the house, I wrote my first poem.  It was about Superman.  I remember feeling giddy seeing how rhythm and rhyme bounced against meaning.  Mysterious and perplexing.  Thrilling.  It baffled and excited me.  From forever I needed to write.  But what?  But how?

By the time I was spending those Wednesday nights at Fred’s, talking with Segnitz about my literary aspirations, I’d been imagining myself a fiction writer, poems on the side.  There’d be novels and short stories, although I had only the vaguest notion of how to construct either.  I was immersed in science fiction and fantasy.  In the big enclosed front porch of the apartment Sandy and I rented on Washington Avenue I strung cords from window to window over the table and paper clipped character sketches and maps and mini-histories of a world and culture that I was trying to create, inspired by Fritz Lieber and the dozens of SF and fantasy books I’d read through my teen years. It was building worlds that fascinated me.  I had shades of characters, vague plot concepts.  But I didn’t know how to make it cohere.  I had a few stories that I was sending out to the magazines.  They kept sending them back. 

More than a decade before that, once I got my early teen hands on a guitar, I’d thought I’d be a songwriter.  I wrote dozens of ‘em.  Not that I knew anything about song structure or about chord progressions.  My lyrics were primitive angst.  “Twisted shadows in the rain…”  “Every time I think of you / I start to cry…”  That kind of thing.  But I learned.  My lyrics got a little better, my guitar chops and composing skills improved.  By the time I got to JFK Prep for my junior year of high school, I was a better singer and player than most of my contemporaries.  I played the standards of the time – the Bob Dylan songs, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor – interspersed with a few of my own.  Fewer as years went by.

I was serious enough about music that after I fled high school in the wake of the cocaine scandal and spent an aimless half year at the plastics factory (finishing my courses by mail), when Kevin persuaded me to go on to college I decided to be a music major.  The structure fascinated me.  The puzzles of keys and progressions.  Tension and release.  Why did that sequence of sounds compel that series of emotions?  A tug beyond words.  I wanted to know how to make it happen.

At the community college, studying with Frank Doverspike, it seemed plausible.  My parents managed to rent a good upright piano.  I took lessons.  I wrote simple compositions, pored over Bach and Beethoven scores.  I could see myself as if I had a future as a composer.  Davey and I fantasized about writing a rock opera.  But then I got to UW-Milwaukee, which had a very serious music program with serious, distinguished music faculty and very serious and cutthroat music students.  It became quite clear quite quickly that success in this world required a single-minded devotion to the art and craft that I was unwilling to make.  I was too interested in too many things (and too intimidated by the other students).  By the middle of the next semester I was no longer a music major.  I loaded up on Philosophy and English classes.

I kept writing, looking for my beat.  Songs, poems, stories.  I took a class with James Liddy, the Irish poet.  The San Francisco Renaissance.  Read Spicer, Duncan, Snyder, Ferlinghetti.  Ginsberg.   Nights, after supper and getting stoned with my housemates, I’d make my way to Axel’s to carouse with Liddy and the poets.  Loud and profane and mad with the love of language.  Scandalous Penglase and his tales of student seductions. One night, to the great amusement of the assembled, Joe Henry, the IRA gunrunner, showed up with Miriam Ben-Shalom, the lesbian Zionist who was suing the US Army for kicking her out (for being a lesbian, not for being a Zionist).  Apparently the fires they recognized in each other were much stronger than the obvious differences and contradictions – for one passionate week, at least.  (And how did I end up one night in Miriam’s leather jacket?)  I read Ulysses for the first time.  I read it for pleasure because the poets talked about what a rollicking and wild fun read it was.  I loved it.

I wasn’t trying to make it as a poet.  I didn’t bring my drafts along, as some of the other youngsters did, hoping for encouraging words.  Whatever poems or stories I was dabbling with I kept mostly to myself.  I was still imagining the singer/songwriter.

Sunday evenings it was the Gasthaus open mike.  Wisconsin was eighteen for beer and the Gasthaus, in the basement of the student union, poured more than any other bar in that beer-drenched city.  We’d sign up for 30 minute sets.  I was popular.  I’d spent a semester’s lunch money on the Framus 12-string.  I could fingerpick on it, which dazzled the other guitar players.  I could do the long songs – the whole monologue from “Alice’s Restaurant.”  “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”  “Tangled Up In Blue.”  I still sprinkled in a few of my own.  On stage, behind the microphone, I was bold and comfortable.

Offstage, not so much.  My comfort zone was very small, and, though I didn’t see it at the time, it was getting smaller.  My shyness, building since I was seven, was inching relentlessly toward the pathological.  My professors were amazed when I’d come to their offices for one on one.  I was articulate and insightful and fully engaged.  My papers were brilliant.  But I never said a word in class.  I was okay with people I knew.  I could manage groups of two or three.  But to spontaneously speak up in front of a classroom of faces?  Not happening.  I could get on stage and sing to a full room, because the guitar and the songs protected me.  Finish my set and go over to the table where the other guitar players were drinking and joking and sharing tips and teasing each other?  Not happening.  I couldn’t impose myself.

Still, I managed to arrange a couple of local auditions, was infuriated by the bar owner who said I was okay but needed to stop overdoing the Dylan stuff.  I was pissed because I’d only sung one Dylan song.  But of course everything I played or wrote was suffused with Dylan, even if I refused to own it.  I got one gig, playing and singing while people ate in a little café.  It went well, and the audience seemed to like it, but I wasn’t happy.  I didn’t want to be background music even though I knew that’s how you start.  But it was all terrifying and unsettling and after a bit I didn’t have any more auditions lined up and I didn’t make any more calls.  I was getting married and moving to Oshkosh.

The guitar playing and the singing, writing my own songs, everything I’d rested my character on in Milwaukee, drifted away.  I didn’t know how to hustle for it in Oshkosh.  Maybe, I thought, it turns out the guitar playing was just a phase after all.  A high school and college thing.  Just one more kid with a teenage dream.  I was wistful about leaving it behind, but okay!  Sandy and I could still be artists together.  Mutually supportive.  I’d start with a factory job and write late into the night.  She’d finish her art degree.  When she graduated, she’d get a job, I’d leave the factory and write more.  Poems, novels.  Maybe short stories (although how they worked perplexed me even more than poems some days).

In the candle factory I’d have a book of poems in one hip pocket, a little notebook in the other.  My job was “material handler” – to get the right packaging materials to the end of the line where the women gathered the wrapped candles skittering down the shoot and lined them up in their boxes and packed those boxes into larger boxes and stacked those boxes onto wooden skids that I’d scoop up with the forklift and bring out to the warehouse.  The supplies were kept in a mezzanine where I had my perch looking down across the factory floor, the six production lines, where I could see who needed new supplies or who had a skid about ready for the warehouse.  There was plenty of slack time.  I’d go into a back corner for a couple of hits off a joint, return to my perch to write in a pocket notebook, or to pull out Howl or Four Quartets.

My shift ended at 10:30.  The factory was a mile and a half from our apartment and when the weather was fine I’d run, just for the sheer physical joy of it.  The factory work kept me in the best physical shape of my life.  Sandy’d be in bed and I’d fix myself something to eat.  Sometimes I’d bake something – I made a fine chocolate soufflé – and I’d wake her up for a snack.  And I’d write.  I’d study Poets & Writers Magazine, pore over Len Fulton’s Directory.  Sent out my stories and poems.  Plotted my fantasy novel. 

The rejections mounted.  An occasional encouraging note, but no successes.  The factory work was mind-numbing, far, far worse than I’d romantically imagined.  The novel wasn’t coming together.  Editors weren’t interested in my stories and poems.  I wasn’t emotionally capable of the hustling that a freelance writing career requires.  I was 24 and trying to come to grips with the fact that, after giving up the notion of making it as a composer, or a singer songwriter, I wasn’t going to make it as a writer, either.

It brought a kind of weird relief.  Because if I no longer had to deal with the pressures of trying to make it as a writer, I could use my free time for whatever I wanted.  And what would that be?  Well, writing, of course.  But for myself, without worrying about publishing or selling.  That seemed pretty safe.

I was turning further and further inward.  I rarely saw my Kaukauna or Milwaukee friends anymore.  Emblematic was me at the post office.  To stand in line waiting to buy some stamps was torture.  I’d start to sweat, my face would get flushed.  When it was finally my turn, I’d stammer out what I wanted but it was painful.  I was so afraid of getting it wrong.  It was like that everywhere I went.

Social phobia.  Social anxiety disorder.  Selective mutism.  Plenty of diagnostic slots for it all now, but I knew none of that then.  I only knew the fear of being pointed out.  Of being noticed.  And disapproved of.  Embarrassed.

But I had to get out of the candle factory.  If I wasn’t going to be spending my stony nights being A Writer (as opposed to just writing poems), I was going to need to find a new way of making a living. Sandy was getting itchy about financial security.  My fantasy about mutually supportive struggling artists wasn’t quite as shared as I’d thought.

I’d been a science snob in high school and college.  I’d managed to avoid calculus (to my everlasting regret).  Everything I knew about physics and chemistry I’d gotten from Isaac Asimov’s columns in Fantasy & Science Fiction (which was quite a lot, actually).  But high school science classes?  College?  Unh-uh.  And I was stupidly proud of that.

Computers were interesting, though.  The science fiction I’d been inhaling all through the seventies and into the eighties featured computers.  And I’d come across articles occasionally about how a career in computers was a promising choice for somebody looking for a path in 1980.  My dad’d had a Sinclair ZX-81.  One kilobyte of memory, expandable to eight.  Membrane keyboard.  Hooked up to an old B&W tv.  Did just about nothing and was absolutely captivating.

But when I looked into computers as a trade it seemed as narrow and limiting as classical music had been.  I was too interested in too many things. 

I quit the candle factory.  Spent six months plotting my next move.  When had I ever had a job I liked?  At UWM I did work study in the reserves & periodicals section of the Golda Meir library.  I’d loved that.  I’d felt obviously at home.  And wouldn’t you know, the local campus of the University of Wisconsin had a library school!  Well, no, not a school – a program.  Started by a couple of women who’d been faculty at the very well regarded School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan.  Unaccredited (which meant nothing to me), half a dozen faculty, students mostly school librarians looking for a credential boost.  My ignorance about what I was doing was profound, but I figured it’d work out.

I started running a linotype machine at Miles Kimball, the mail order outfit, in order to raise money for school.  Made the lead slugs that were used to imprint personalized pencils and napkins and Christmas cards.  Felt connected to Gutenberg.  The guy who trained me was taciturn and focused on the work, which suited me just fine.  I liked the process.  I liked the machine.  I liked the order and the mechanicalness of it; the slight whiff of danger from working with molten lead.  The complexity of steps leading to the finished product.  The solitude. 

I’d come into work with the crowd and leave with them but I didn’t have to make eye contact, didn’t have to  talk with anybody.  The breakroom was too terrifying, so I never went.  On my lunch break I’d go out to walk, eating a granola bar I bought from the vending machine. 

I knew I was in a bad way, even if I didn’t know there were diagnostic categories for it.  The day after Segnitz brought up The Wisconsin Review I shuffled through the fallen leaves trying to figure it out.  It was sunny that afternoon, the fall air crisp, the familiar and welcome earthy scent of the crumbling leaves.  It was a little chilly but I was sweating under my light jacket, miserable.  I knew it was a turning point.  If I said no, then my fears would determine my choices for the rest of my life.  If I said yes, I had a chance to do something I desperately wanted to do, to engage with the world of literature outside of my room.  But I would be putting myself into the world in ways that I’d spent the last few years trying to avoid. 

I take it as given that most of the daily decisions that stress us out are actually completely inconsequential.  Whatever we decide to do about today’s crisis will end up having very little impact on the actual course of our lives or the lives of those rippled by those decisions.  (“Don’t sweat the small stuff.  It’s all small stuff.”)  But then there are those occasional days when the divergent paths are indeed momentous and irrevocable.  So there I am, all by myself, on a pretty, cool, sunny, brisk autumn afternoon in Oshkosh, nibbling my granola bar, on respite from turning molten lead into the names of young people whose grandparents will see that personalized pencils get into their Christmas stockings.  The branches of my life are before me.  It has never been so clear.  Never before and rarely since.  What does it mean to say that I made a choice?

Unpublished and unpublishable I might be, but now I’d decide who got into print and who didn’t.  Thirty-two pages an issue.  Three issues a year.  I said yes.

I sat with each of the editorial staff, the half dozen students who helped select and organize the content.  What did they want?  What did they bring?  This one was pretty and blond and oh so sure of herself.  She was one of the Flaherty groupies, Flaherty being the English department’s resident boho poet.  He’d been the Review’s faculty advisor before being ousted by Segnitz in a typical bit of academic skullduggery about which I knew nothing.  Selecting the poems was easy, she said.  You looked at them and picked out the good ones.  I sighed, inwardly.  “And what makes the good ones, good?” I asked.  She didn’t stay long.  I wasn’t much fun.  I added editorial advisors of my own.  John Harmon, composer, pianist, and spirit guide from Fire & Ice; Davey & Doc, reliable friends from my hometown.

The Review was organized as an independent student activity group so we had a budget of a few thousand a year for programming.  Segnitz had seen the flyer from whoever was repping Heaney and said we should get him.  He’d just started teaching half years at Harvard and every article about him included the Lowell quote calling him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.”  He told me later that he'd been expecting some greybeard professor from the English department to pick him up at the airport, not this 26 year old kid with a scraggly beard and skinny tie.  Have I mentioned that I didn’t know what I was doing?

Segnitz had a fishing shack on the shores of Lake Winnebago, which is where we ended up after Heaney’s reading.   I’d never been to a reading by a famous author.  The Review wasn’t connected to the English department.  (We heard later through the grapevine that few of the English faculty bothered to come to the reading, figuring this Heaney guy was some Irish ne’er do well friend of Flaherty’s).  I didn’t know that the standard routine would’ve been a wine and cheese reception at the faculty club afterwards.  We got a bottle of Jameson and some six packs of Guinness and eight or ten of us headed to the shack.  We had a great time.  Echoes of Axel’s with beer and an Irish poet and conversation rolling over and on top of each other.  Davey had the wickedest wit of us all and was in particularly fine form, needling our distinguished guest about the Yeats quote.  Heaney cringed at that, but once he got over the shock of realizing how different this evening was unfolding from what was typical, he gave as good as he got.

The hotel I’d booked Heaney into was a fleabag near campus that had hourly rates.  I did manage to get him back to it safely, but had to rouse him only a few hours later.  Sandy was doing feature articles for the local paper in those days and she’d arranged for him to do a press conference / reception at mid-morning the day after the reading.   We dragged our hangovers back to campus, to the Pollock House, the fancy Spanish Revival building from 1920, gifted to the University by the president of Oshkosh B’Gosh (when it was the Oshkosh Overall Company).   The press consisted of Sandy and an over-eager kid from the student newspaper.  The reading had been a great success, despite the non-interest of the local English faculty (the liberal arts school down the road – Lawrence University – sent a busload of students), and the place was mobbed.  Sandy and the kid talked over each other asking questions, while students pushed books and slips of paper his way to sign.  He smiled and answered and signed, patient and affable, seeming only a little bewildered.  I sat next to him, trying to orchestrate the madness until I could see his veneer thinning and figured it was time to get a drink into him before heading to the airport.  I knew which joint on Main opened the taps at 11:30, so we piled in, me and Heaney and bits of my crew and hangers-on from campus.  Boilermakers standing at the bar and then back to the airport and then he was off to whatever college town was next on the list.

Heaney went on to his next gig, but then he cancelled the rest of the tour.  I felt responsible for that, in a good way.  Perversely proud of it in fact.  I never knew if he cancelled the trips because he was afraid there’d be more nights like that in other little college towns or he was afraid that there wouldn’t be.  We traded post cards, but the correspondence never took off.  My fault.  I could carouse with him, drink with him, tell stories with him, but in the quiet of my apartment I was too shy to write to him.  I couldn’t quite feature that he’d actually want to hear from me.  I dreaded being a nuisance; or, even worse, a bore.

Such a hodgepodge of anxiety and arrogance I was.  Timid, sure.  Terrified, often.  But sure of myself?  Yeah. Very sure of myself.  I knew people would follow me – they had since kindergarten.  I knew my brain was quick.  I knew I could write.  I knew I had talent.  I knew I was lucky.  I just didn’t know what it was all for.  You’d think I must’ve been insufferable.  And yet, on the evidence of those who’ve loved me, apparently not.  At least not entirely.  I don’t understand it.  I wasn’t humble, but I was kind.  If my arrogance was overpronounced, so was my empathy.  I ignored what I didn’t know and forced myself to go on. 

In my teens, when I was still living mostly at home, I’d sometimes have a couple of beers late at night with my Dad.  He’d’ve had several by then and I was probably stoned, having been out with friends but getting home more or less in time for my curfew.  He’d tell me things about his life and his hopes and the things he wrestled with on his quest to be the good man.  He told me two very important things.  That it was okay to be scared.  Because life was, after all, very scary.  This was astounding coming from that guy, who I would’ve thought scared of nothing.  Not just that it was okay to be scared, it was sensible!  It was the appropriate response to dealing with the world.  Later on I would quote this as “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention,” although I don’t think he ever actually put it like that.  And he told me about a conversation he’d had with my cousin Michael, who was getting ready to usher a wedding (or maybe a funeral).  Michael was very nervous, afraid of doing it wrong.  Dad told him in most settings most people are unsure about what to do, but they’re afraid to let on, so they hide it.  They’re scared, and they think they’re the only one.  They’re looking around for somebody who looks like they know what they’re doing so they can follow.  Just act like you’re the guy who knows.  That was the secret power.  You’re not the only one who’s scared.

By the time I saw Heaney at the Hirshhorn, we’d been living in DC for three and a half years.  I was getting better at pretending to be that guy. The Wisconsin Review had been a huge step.  Then, with my library degree I got a fellowship at the National Library of Medicine.  I got training in public speaking, worked on group projects.  I had a career now.  I was meeting my responsibilities.  Sandy was getting to be an artist but I was still writing every day, mostly poems.

I bought each of Heaney’s books as soon as they came out, relishing my special connection.  I loved the poems and the translations.  The way his language fills the mouth, reading him aloud was a physical, muscular exercise.  The centuries of sadness and struggle springing from the ground on rhythm and rhyme.  I was never much caught up by his prose, though.  I’ve almost never read anything about poetry that helped me understand how to read it. 

What is it about?  What does it mean?  People want to know.  I want to get away from that need to know.  When Rothko’s kids gifted 1,000 of their dad’s pictures to the National Gallery of Art in the early 80s (just after we arrived in DC) he was not nearly as popular as he is now.  NGA mounted a blockbuster show and after the opening weekend where many in the crowd were actively hostile (“my little girl could do that”), the galleries were frequently deserted on the many days that I went back.  Occasionally there’d be a couple of other people there and I’d hear them whisper, “But what do they mean?”

It seems I’ve been trying all my life to short circuit that pedestrian part of my brain that insists on shellacking meaning on to ordered prose.  Get out of my way, brain!  Psychedelics in my teens helped me see what prose couldn’t touch, that my excessively verbal, excessively rational mind couldn’t get me to.  By the time the psychedelics had begun to bore me (junior year of college) I’d learned that the arts could get me there.  “There” was what was called the ineffable.  That which cannot be described in words.  Sitting in a room full of Rothko’s pictures (Rothko was very precise in his use of language and he always referred to his work as “pictures,” never “paintings,” which tells you inscrutably much about what he was trying to do) I could open my self and shut down the endless internal chatter and experience them.  The translation of the ineffable I called it.  Abstract art.  Symphonies and string quartets.  Coltrane.  Poems.  Poems could do it, too.  How weird is that?

There’ve been years when I worked on my poems every day; there were years when songs or fiction took precedence, but the itch to write the poems were always there.  I was most serious about it in those years around my Heaney encounters.  Not long after the Hirshhorn reading my career took Sandy and me to St. Louis.  But the poems kept tugging at me.  I took some workshops, even applied for an MFA program.  Spent hours with a (female) friend discussing Rilke and Neruda, poems of our own.  The marriage imploded.  Turns out the two mutually supportive artists thing was only my own fantasy.  I moved out, did readings at local open mikes, finally got a couple of poems published in a local magazine.  I joined a band, fantasized about quitting my job, spent my off hours with painters and musicians.  Negotiated mid-30s singlehood.

And stopped writing poems.  No more poems.  WTF?  It happened without much thought and without regret.  I still thought of myself as a poet long after the desire to actually write poems had passed.  It took me a long time to realize it was gone.  Apparently writing this essay has been an attempt to understand why.  Turns out it was the letters.

Frisse said, “That woman has whole cities inside her.”

She was a professional colleague whose job was to build relationships with library directors.  Like me.  After politely avoiding her invitations to dinner for eighteen months, I said yes.  To my surprise I had a wonderful time.  So a month later, yes again.  And then emails.  I could tell her everything.  That had never happened.  I could hardly keep up with myself.

Her boss scolded her because her excitement when my emails arrived was disrupting the flow of things in her office.  (But we were still “just friends”).  So I started writing her a letter every day.  Physical good Crane stationery fountain pen four and five and six pages letters stamped and delivered by mail.  We were colleagues, then friends, confidants, lovers.  It happened fast.

Different cities, busy travel schedules, so for nearly two years I wrote at least one letter every day, many days two, occasionally three.  Who had time to struggle with poems?  The letters became little essays.  I’d found my form. 

We married, I moved.  New town, new job, new level of confidence (although still reliant on my Dad’s secret power).  I still wrote letters to her when we travelled apart, which was often.  My library career blossomed.  I was a success.  An in demand speaker.  And there were the editorials and blog posts and professional articles that I always approached as if they were personal essays.  Every memo I wrote was an exploration of creative writing.  Every multiply revised email an exercise in creative nonfiction.  Rhythm, sound, image.  Looking for the poetry in even the most mundane of bureaucratic tasks.

Very occasionally I’d get the urge to try a line or two of verse, or maybe a lyric for a song.  But then those scribbles sat untouched.  From the age of six I thought I was supposed to be writing poems.  I was wrong.  Why did it take so long?  I’ve no answer. 

I never stopped reading poems, and these days I’m getting better at it, getting good at giving myself over to the experience, getting in on the side, past that linear, analytic rut.  What, after all, did I learn from multiple readings of Ulysses? Of Pound's Cantos?  To let myself float along on sound and emotion without worrying too much about the sense of every line.  To note with delight how each re-reading of a poem is different from all the readings before and after.  To trust the transformation of experience even when I don’t entirely know what’s going on.  I’ve read poetry for insight, instruction, inspiration, enlightenment; while I’ve often been surprised and delighted, I’ve rarely read poems just for pleasure.  I seem to be learning how to do that now.

I recently came to accept the fact that I’m not going to live long enough to read every unread book we have in the house.  (Tsundoku – Meiji slang for letting them pile up.)  That takes a lot of the pressure off.  It doesn’t matter anymore how long it takes me to get to a book’s last page.  Some evenings I'll come across a poem that sits just right and I'll spend the next half hour reading and rereading; listening and watching as it tumbles and unfolds.  A poem is its own object in the world, unlike any other piece of text.  Of course it has meaning – but not a meaning.  To ask what the poem is about is a terrible place to start.  Just as with humans and dogs and spiders and rocks and rivers, the poem is its meaning. 

I found that verse was not my form, but I've never stopped pursuing poetry, looking for it in every line.  What else so well reflects our beautiful human foolishness?  We turn to the arts to try to cut through all the scrims of arrogance and envy and wickedness and loneliness and fear and embarrassment and hope and ecstasy and love and madness to touch the ineffable, to reach that pulsing heart of existence which, by definition, cannot be expressed in words.  We’re desperate for it.  We paint, dance, pound on drums, carve stone.  The translation of the ineffable.  But for our purest, most naked attempts to reach beyond our limits, what tool will we use, we brilliant, perplexing, confused, limited and limitless humans?  Words.  Against all reason, we’ll use words.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Touchstone.  Seamus Heaney, roaring with laughter in a fishing shack on the shores of Lake Winnebago, bottle of Guinness in hand.  We’re all throwing our best words at each other, down for the joy of it. 

Ready Player One

If I could only keep one, I'd take the novel. But I'm a book guy at heart.  I wouldn't begrudge someone taking the movie to their own desert island.

We watched it a few months ago.  Liked it quite a bit.  Weeks later, Lynn read it.  Very good, she told me.  But "it's very different from the movie."  So I read it and had great fun.  (My favorite throwaway line was the bit about the "geezers" Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, still getting re-elected to keep fighting the good fight).  It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the details had faded, so I wasn't making comparisons.  I took the book on its own terms.

It's an Easter basket of unexpected toys and games, a Hallowe'en sack of delights, all familiar but popping up new.  It's been years since I spent a lot of time playing video games, but I could almost feel my fingers flexing as I turned the pages.  I wanted to go back and play every one of those old games, watch every one of those eighties movies.

I finished it midweek and we watched the movie again just a couple of days later.  The specifics of the book's version were still sharp.  I thought the changes the moviemakers made were absolutely fine.  I didn't miss anything that was taken out.  The movie's so engaging and well paced, there wasn't time for that.  I liked the fact that the challenges were different.  Not that I liked them better than the ones in the book, just that it was fun to have more of them.  Of course they were much more visual.  The big dance scene was more vivid on film than the swirly version I'd cooked up on my own.  The book's a little darker, the movie a little sweeter.  The movie compresses the love story, but that was okay.  They only had so much time to play with.

There's something fundamentally askew in trying to judge whether any book or movie is the better version.  They're such different ways of telling stories.  Least likely to be effective is a film that hews too closely to the arc and incidents of the novel, or a novelization that does little more than recount the settings and episodes of the movie.  If comparisons must be made, it should be to compare the book to other books and the film to other films.  How effective are they at using the tools of their craft to transport the reader or the viewer?  To give them an effective experience.

The ingredients of the Ready Player One book and movie are different, but the dish is recognizably the same.  I'll grate pecorino-romano instead of parmagiano-reggiano to sprinkle on tonight's bolognese.  Last time I used bucatini pasta instead of tonight's pappardelle.  I'll bring up a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino instead of an Amarone.  And don't get me started on the meats in the sauce, which vary every time I make it.  There are good reasons for all of those variations but they all result in the same dish.  Sure, you might prefer one variation over another.  But it's silly to say that one is "better" than the other if you're suggesting anything more than personal taste.

When Josie was small, e-books and e-readers were climbing their first big wave and there were endless arguments over which was "better" and how soon e-books were going to eliminate print.  In those days, she was a big fan of The Monster at the End of This Book, in both its print and iPad versions.  Somedays she'd go for one, some days the other.  Different experiences.  She'd've been horrified if I'd told her she could only pick one.

Those debates have settled down now, although they haven't quite disappeared.  And while I may happily substitute grana padano for the pecorino in Josie's beloved cacio e pepe if that's what I've got on hand, I have to be careful who to tell that to if I want to avoid a lecture on the only right way.  (And alright, yes, I'm the guy who declares there's no such thing as a "vodka martini" -- there are just vodka drinks served in a martini glass!  But I'm joking. The grievance vein in my temple isn't pulsing.)

Where does that come from?  That seemingly irresistible impulse that so many have to declare that their preference isn't just preference, it's the only correct thing.  Is it people being so insecure about their own taste that they need to declare that all other versions of taste are inferior?  Or is shouting about it just one more way the internet helps people be thoughtless?

If I were only allowed one version of Ready Player One, I'd pick the book.  But that's me.  I wonder which version of The Monster at the End of This Book Josie would've picked if she'd had to.  So lucky to live in a world in which she doesn't.  She'd've bawled.


Penny Simpson

I don't understand why this woman doesn't have a U.S. publisher.

 In the spring of 2010 I read Indigo's Mermaid in Aleksander Hemon's anthology, Best European Fiction 2010.  It was the best of the lot and though it seemed like the quietest story in the world, I was startled by how suddenly the last sentence humbled me into tears of gratitude.  (I just read it again and the same thing happened). A remarkable tale of forgiveness and kindness, two achingly real people etched "in just a few confident incisions."

From the author's note I learned that Simpson lived in Wales and that she had published one novel and was working on a second.  Jake managed to get me a copy of the novel, The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum and I read it that summer.  Here's part of what I scribbled in the back flap: "Spectacular characters and story, within the amazing frame of Esther's consciousness..."  It had all of the things that I look for in a novel, the meticulously crafted sentences that pull the reader along and illumine the real lives of the characters in a setting and a story that is rich and complete as it surrounds you and carries you away. 

I got a copy of The Deer Wedding not long after it came out and finally got to it a couple of weeks ago -- just as impressive and completely different, although certain themes and approaches crop up again.  I wouldn't want to rank writers of this caliber -- I'll just point out that I've been reading Nabokov and Harrison and Chabon and Butler and Updike this spring and Simpson holds her own.

So then I had to get a copy of her 2003 short story collection Dog Days.  Long out of print, but used copies are easily findable.  Mine showed up on Tuesday and I finished it last night.  Simpson shows an amazing generosity of spirit to her characters, damaged peopled in terrible straits, making lives out of the few fragments they've been given to work with.  For a long time I will be hearing the giggles of Caitlin and her Mam.

She says she's working on the 2nd draft of her next novel.  It can't come soon enough.  And for this one, I hope she can work a deal that will get her wider attention in the States.  Her work deserves it.



Reading E

Lynn sends me an Unshelved comic that, while it may not entirely reflect my experience of reading on the iPad, sure does resonate.

I read Turkle's book on the iPad and I've started The Information (so far I'm only getting books in which the iPad itself has at least a bit part).

Here's what I like: 

I can write notes of any length (or, at least, I haven't hit a word limit yet).  Since I have to type them (which is easy enough with the wireless keyboard) they're more legible than my handwriting ever is, and I don't have to squeeze them into the margins of the page.  In a print book that is really engaging, this sometimes gets ludicrously messy.  I really like that you can then go to the front and see a list of all of the places that you've underlined or noted and go right to them.

With the case that Marian gave me, I can easily prop it up and read while I'm eating lunch.

I love that you can touch an endnote number and go right to it and come back.

What I don't like: 

Blocking the passage that I want to highlight or attach a note to is very awkward. More than half the time it takes me two or three trys to get it to stick. This interrupts the flow of the reading. Very different from just having a pen in hand to underline or annotate as you go along.

There's no variation in marks.  You can highlight or attach a note, but that's it.  When I'm reading I underline, use check marks and circles and stars and a whole iconography that I've developed over 50 years of reading and writing in books.  I feel bereft. 

I was startled, when I started The Information, at how much I didn't like the fact that it looks exactly like the Turkle book.  It's a different book.  It ought to look and feel different.


The technology will get better.  We are so much in the early stages of this.  No doubt a scholar in Alexandria who was used to papyrus scrolls was very frustrated the first time he came across a codex.  This'll never take off, he would've thought.

Still, it's hard for me to imagine that an electronic version could ever be better than the equivalent print book.  It can be different.  It can do different things, and be much better at those things.  Josie loves the electronic version of The Monster at the End of This Book.  But when she goes to that she's playing with a toy, she's not reading a book.  Not for a moment does she think that it's equivalent to reading the book (which she also loves).  They're different experiences.  Both worthwhile, but fundamentally different.

I'm trying to imagine the technology getting to the point where I would prefer the electronic version of a print book.  But unless the "book" does different things, I can't see why I would -- and then it's no longer a "version" of a print book.  It's something else.

I do love that endnote feature, though.

The Klosterman Question

Great.  Just what I need.  Another indispensable writer.

I've been vaguely aware of Chuck Klosterman for some time -- have read, I suppose, the occasional essay or article.  A couple of weeks ago I read a review of Eating the Dinosaur -- it's just come out in paperback.  I was intrigued, but I'm trying to avoid buying new books until the stack next to my chair is whittled down to something slightly shorter than JoBug.

But I underestimated what I needed to bring to read for the flight to Pittsburgh.    By the time I got to Atlanta I was almost through the David Sedaris book that was supposed to last me the entire flight.  So I ducked into a Buckhead Books and scanned the new arrivals rack and there was Eating the Dinosaur.  I guess it was meant to be.

He's funny, but he's not a humorist.  He just has a funny way of looking at the world.  But he looks very deeply and uses his writing to try to figure out what he's seeing.  Why do interviews work?  Why does the notion of time travel make him feel so uncomfortable?   What does the Kurt Cobain's response to his rock stardom tell us about rock stardom in general?  What does Cobain's sanity, or lack thereof, tell us about our own?

In the essay about time travel he says,

Here's a question I like to ask people when I'm 5/8 drunk:  Let's say you had the ability to make a very brief phone call into your own past.  You are (somehow) given the opportunity to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the fifteen year old version of you.  However, you will only get to talk to your former self for fifteen seconds.

Coincidentally, I've been thinking a lot about my mid-teen years lately. 

Implicit in the question is the notion that you'd use those 15 seconds to somehow correct something based on the knowledge you now have.  Klosterman says the results tend to split between gender lines -- women "advise themselves not to do something they now regret..., while men almost always instruct themselves to do something they failed to attempt..."

I can't think of a thing.

It's certainly not that I don't have regrets.  The piles grow daily, I'm afraid.  There's the big ones -- I deeply regret the pain that I caused my first wife when I decided to leave that marriage.  Despite knowing that it was the right thing to do, I'll never get over it.  

And there are thousands of little regrets.  In Toronto a couple of years ago, I ended up at The Rex one afternoon.  It was a benefit show for an Asperger's foundation, and a young man with Asperger's spoke briefly about how important the organization was to him.   He spoke movingly and as he walked past me I placed my hand on his shoulder in what I intended to be a gesture of support.  He didn't flinch, but it was an incredibly dumb thing of me to do and my face gets warm whenever that memory floats by -- which it does uncomfortably often.

And why didn't I help those two young women struggling to pull their cart full of office supplies up the curb as I was headed out to lunch this afternoon?

But what could I tell that fifteen year old self that would, ultimately, have improved my life or enabled me to cause less pain to those around me?  I can't think of a thing.

Klosterman pushes you like that.  And I know he's going to talk me into buying more records.

Deep Reading Dylan

The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival.  I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well.  It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on.  Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song.  ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)

No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night.  I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since.  I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited.  And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.

No matter.  Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading.  He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle.   But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme.  Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.

He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different.  Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.

Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always.   Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:

...I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious.  Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.  So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't.

Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible.  He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.

In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry).   But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan. 

So what's the point of reading a book like that?  Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody?  Will it increase my appreciation for his songs?  Probably not, actually.  It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose.  Mostly, it was just great fun.

A Pile of Books

It was introvert heaven.  Lynn left around noon the day after Christmas to take her dad back to Little Rock and to spend a few days sorting through more of her mom's stuff.  Marian and Josie had come over to say goodbye, but they left shortly thereafter.  From then until Tuesday evening, when Lynn got home, I had no obligations, nobody that I had to see, no place that I had to go, nobody that I had to talk to.

There was the daily email to take care of, but with a lot of people taking vacation, that was pretty light.  I fixed myself some nice meals, watched movies in the evening, played guitar for an hour or so everyday.  Mostly, I read.

I had been working my way through Just Enough Leibling, so I was able to finish that the day after Lynn left.  I'd bought it several years ago, based on the reviews it received when it came out.  I suppose I'd been vaguely familiar with the name, a guy who wrote long pieces for the New Yorker during that magazine's early heyday, but I don't think I'd read any of his stuff.  The review convinced me that I ought to, but then, of course, it sat on the shelf for a few years.  It was worth waiting for.  His tales of the characters in the streets of New York are great fun, and his exaggerated sentences, perfectly pitched to the extravagances of his subjects are a delight, but I was most moved by his reporting from World War II.   Here, his sentences are spare and almost flat as he describes the most dramatic and searing episodes.  The restraint makes it all the more moving.  The Library of America has just come out with a collected Leibling that is now on my shelf and I look forward to getting to that one day.

On the stand next to the chair in my study is a stack of books that have come in via the Booksmith's Signed First Editions club, so I looked through that next.  This year's free thirteenth was Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas.  Seemed like appropriate timing, so I picked that one up next.  It's the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol and, in the process, helped to establish many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas.  I was very impressed with it -- it's fairly brief, but the writing is excellent and Standiford has done great research.  Down here in the Bible Belt, where the recent announcement that scientists have determined that the Christmas Star probably shone in June rather than December has been received with great consternation in some quarters, it was very amusing to be reminded that up until fairly recent times the major Christian holiday was Easter, and that in certain parts of the colonies it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas, because the holiday had such a reputation for licentiousness and debauchery.  I wonder what Bill O' would make of that?

By then I was ready to dig into a novel, so I pulled from the stack Ron Rash's Serena, which turns out to be a reworking of the themes of Shakespeare's Macbeth set against a backdrop of the battles between the lumber barons and the conservationists in North Carolina in the 1930s.  Great story, well drawn characters, nicely absorbing.  I was particularly taken with the way that he uses one of the work crews to fill the same role that Shakespeare would give to his clowns -- minor characters who can comment on the main action and fill out the picture.  Impressively believable, given how over-the-top the story actually was.

Next from the stack I went with The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig, which got a good review in the NYT shortly after it arrived from the Booksmith.  There's nothing flashy about this novel, which takes it's starting point from a true story.  During WWII, the eleven members of the starting lineup of a Montana college football team all enlisted and all died (Montana had the second highest casualty rate of any state in the union, just behind New Mexico).   In Doig's version (which does not attempt to retell the actual story), one of the eleven is tapped to be a correspondent for a shadowy government outfit tasked with writing propaganda pieces about the other members of his team.  Of course, one by one, they get killed.  Doig comes close to melodrama on occasion and strains a bit at times with maintaining the central premise of his story, but he pulls it off.  It was particularly moving against the backdrop of our current idiotic war in which so many young men and women with so much to offer are being senselessly sacrificed to no good purpose.

By the time I finished The Eleventh Man, Lynn was back, it was New Year's day and Marian and Josie were here.    I was ready for something light.  I'd given each of them a copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard as stocking stuffers and, unbeknownst to me, Marian had bought a copy for her Mom, so that one came to me.  It had gotten mixed reader reviews -- some people were disappointed that it wasn't more substantial, apparently wanting it to be the eighth volume of the Harry Potter series, so I picked it up without any particular expectations.  I thought it was marvelous.  It took just an hour to read, but all of Rowling's humor and inventiveness are on display.  There's no story in particular, but that's okay.  My favorite part was finding out that the seeds of the enmity between Dumbledore and Lucius Malfoy arise from Dumbledore's refusal to remove a book that Malfoy disapproves of from the Hogworts library.

Having cleared my palate, so to speak, I was ready to dig back into something substantial, and I went for Roberto Bolano's 2666 which Lynn gave me for Christmas.  It's shown up on several Best of...  lists and some of the praise has been quite extravagant.  I'm about midway through and from what I can tell at this point, the extravagance is not misplaced.  It's about 900 pages in total, so now that I'm back at work it's going to take me awhile to get through it.  I'm both eager and hesitant -- I know it's going to get a lot darker before we get to the end.

I won't get another chance to indulge in that depth of reading until at least next summer, I suppose, but that's okay.  By Tuesday morning, when I finally went out to the grocery store, it was the real world that felt strange and I knew I needed to get back to it.  Even introverts have to live outside of themselves.


Some years ago, when I was in London speaking at the ASA conference, BtheA gave me a copy of Iain Banks' Raw Spirit as a parting gift.   I read it on the flight back home and was amazed at its casual brilliance.  There seemed to be at least three or four story lines coursing through the book, and Banks moved among them effortlessly.  I learned a lot about whisky, and a lot about Banks, and by the time I got back, I was eager to read more.

Banks alternates between mainstream fiction and science fiction (twelve of the former and ten of the latter, so far).  In the months after reading Raw Spirit I read three of the mainstream novels and two of the science fiction and finished each one being more impressed than ever.  The easy facility with sentences is always evident, along with an astonishing imagination, great characterizations and fascinating plots.  He likes to put twists into the endings and I've always been nicely surprised by how he brings each book to a close in a completely satisfying way.   Regardless of the genre he's working in, his underlying concerns are always ethical -- what are one's obligations to others and to oneself, how does one deal with the challenges of love and responsibility.  His novels often contain scenes of terrible violence and injustice, but he is one of the most humane authors I've ever read.

After reading those five books, I moved on to other things, so when I was packing for Scotland, I grabbed the remaining unread sf novel that I had on a shelf and tossed it into the suitcase to read on the flight home.  Then, when we stopped into Whiting's on our last day in Peebles to pick up a jigsaw puzzle for Josie, I bought two more of the mainstream novels.  I finished one of those on the plane, then started the sf novel I'd brought with me.  I finished that one yesterday and started the other mainstream novel.  Each one is remarkably different and completely engaging.

I may take a break from Banks again after I finish this one, but there's a strong temptation to just keep going.   Given the rate at which he churns these out, I might never catch up!

It's Not About Food

In How To Cook A Wolf, MFK Fisher says that she'll be happy to be invited over to your house for dinner "so long as you are self-possessed..., your mind is your own and your heart is another's and therefore in the right place."

It's the kind of perfectly balanced, tart and quick line that shows up on at least every page of every one of her books.  I was telling someone at the Booksmith awhile back, when I picked up another couple of volumes, that although I had been aware of Fisher for years, it was only in the last year or so that I'd started to read her myself, and I was irritated and impatient at discovering what I had missed. 

"It's a great shame," I said,  "that's she's characterized as a food writer, because that's likely to put off some people from reading her.  Food is her central metaphor, but what she writes about is love and relationships and the struggle to be that very self-possessed person that is her ideal.  And she does it with some of the most glistening prose that an American writer ever put to paper."

The version of How To Cook A Wolf that I just finished is the revised edition and one of its particular delights is that Fisher extensively annotated the original volume (published in 1942) nine years later, and those glosses are interpolated throughout the text.  She expands sections, chastises herself for earlier foolishnesses, changes her mind and quarrels with herself, goes off on tangents.  It's great fun.  She is a remarkably unselfconscious writer. 

I've no idea how hard making the craft work was for her or how much revision she ended up doing, but the effect is certainly of someone tossing off brilliant sentence after brilliant sentence as if they've just come into her head.  She never panders to her audience.  Indeed, you get the impression that she doesn't give a damn if anybody reads the stuff at all.  Her first audience is herself, and if she can please that tremendously demanding one, then it's fine if anybody else wants to read along...  or not.

I'm happy to say that her reprint publisher (North Point Press) seems to get it.  The bio blurb on the back cover says, simply, "MFK Fisher (1908-1992) is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics."

The blurb that most impressed me, however, is on the back of The Gastronomical Me.  "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose."  The author of that line is W.H. Auden -- who knew a thing or two about how to put down words, one after another, without wasting anything.

I suppose that part of the reason I take such delight in a writer like Fisher is that we are surrounded by so much flabby prose.  Blogs, by their very nature, are generally terrible, of course -- they're intended to convey ideas quickly and few bloggers pay much attention to the construction and balance of their sentences (at least I hope that's the case, given the results).  But most published prose suffers from the general decline in good editing.  Along with everything else in our hyperculture, writers write too fast, too eager to get their ideas expressed, than to be bothered with making the prose as tough and sharp as it ought to be.

When I was teaching my intellectual property on the internet seminar some years ago, I would bring to one of the first classes a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen -- a slender silver tube with a large nib.  I'd send it around the table with a bottle of ink so that each of the students could try it.  I'd hold up the Library of America volume of his collected letters and remind them, "And he wrote all of this -- and so much more -- with that kind of technology."  It would have required taking much more time thinking about each sentence before committing it to paper, given the work involved in revising.

My own blog posts are primarily experiments in sentence construction.   The game has rules.  Thirty minutes (more or less) for the initial draft, and then another thirty or so to cut and shift and push and listen.  Alas, there's not a one that doesn't suffer from the same faults that I complain about in other's.  But every once in awhile, I come up with a sentence or paragraph that marginally pleases me.  That's enough to keep me going after it.