Posts Tagged ‘Reading’
I realize that the one wish that was granted to me, so late in life, was the gift of friendship.
— From the movie “Finding Forrester”
When was the last time a Hollywood movie portrayed the acts of reading and writing in such a gratifying and fulfilling way that it made you want to read a real book rather than an “airport” bestseller? And when was the last time you saw an interracial mentor-pupil relationship presented as mutually rewarding, and interracial teenage romance depicted without punitive condescension or parental disapproval? Gus Van Sant’s deftly crafted “Finding Forrester” achieves all of the above and more: It provides a platform for Sean Connery to deliver a definitive, career-summation performance as a reclusive, charismatic literary legend. With the right handling, Columbia has a sure winner here, a skillfully written, expertly acted picture whose uplifting plot should score high among viewers across the board.
With the notable exception of “Psycho,” his futile 1998 remake, Van Sant’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. His work has always shown a fondness for outsiders, but rather than merely depicting them sympathetically, Van Sant places his outcasts in crisis, forcing them to confront their relationship to society and its rules. Two of the filmmaker’s most-used motifs are highlighted in the new film: the moral odyssey of outsiders and the casual randomness of urban life.
Indeed, on the surface, “Finding Forrester” tells a similar story to that of Van Sant’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” with Connery playing the Robin Williams part and black teenager Rob Brown in the Matt Damon role, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. While “Forrester” is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, it doesn’t put down the system itself.
With a touch of “Rear Window” voyeurism, narrative depicts Forrester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his Bronx apartment window, seemingly observing a bunch of black kids playing ball in a court across the street; later it turns out he’s an avid bird-watcher. Veiled in mystery, the last the world has heard of Forrester was more than 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-winning novelist. His book, which has since become a cherished classic, is apparently his only literary output.
As the youngsters are aware of Forrester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, 16-year-old Jamal (Brown) accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of his writing. The next day, the bag appears at the window and, to Jamal’s surprise, his papers have been read and graded by Forrester. An unlikely relationship begins, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when an exclusive Manhattan prep school recruits Jamal for his basketball talent and his academic achievement, and he seeks Forrester’s help in dealing with the new environment, becomes a reluctant hero and Jamal gradually becomes committed not only to his own writing, but to cracking Forrester’s shell.
Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While lines of authority are clearly maintained, Mike Rich’s graceful script shows how dependent the mentor becomes on the kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all the while determined to reignite Forrester’s passion for writing before it’s too late. Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn avoids the traps of the similarly themed “Educating Rita,” in which a working-class hairdresser-wife (Julie Walters) forces a boozy professor (Michael Caine) to become her instructor. “Forrester” doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated setups painted with a broad brush — there are no cutesy scenes like Rita giving her mentor a shampoo. Rich inserts enough narrative subtleties and moral shadings into a friendship that ultimately becomes a surrogate family relationship.
The text is extremely old-fashioned: A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent of a courtroom scene, in which an inflexible teacher (F. Murray Abraham) is contrasted with good ones. A bigger mistake is that the filmmakers signal where the tale will ultimately go about a reel before it gets there.
Undoubtedly, it’s the bravura acting that binds viewers to the characters’ shifting emotions from one scene to the next. “Forrester” is very much a chamber piece for two, with more than half the scenes set indoors in Forrester’s cluttered, oversize apartment, inventively textured by production designer Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of Never Never Land. What gives pic a much needed outdoor cinematic dimension are the basketball scenes, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and Valdis Oskarsdottir provides modulated editing.
Playing the Salinger-like writer of legendary stature, Connery expertly fills the bill as a man who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a recluse who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. The role allows the actor to display his signature humor, a flourish of arrogance balanced by depth. Connery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness, but now integrates it into the plot. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show.
Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Connery, and in some scenes even matches him with his inner strength and stillness. Anna Paquin plays a student who fosters a flirtatious friendship with Jamal, while “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon pops up for a late-in-the-game cameo.
— Emanuel Levy
Writing isn’t easy. In fact, it can be painfully difficult. Why? Because it’s thinking, but on paper. “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough.
Many great writers, including Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, have said that their purpose for putting words on paper is to find clarity with their thoughts, and have described the process of writing as one of becoming familiar with their own minds.
“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a 1958 letter. “For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order.”
If you’re a writer, then you’re likely both devoted to your craft and eternally frustrated by it — and even the most talented writers could use guidance from the greats on how to hone their powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing. Take a cue from the likes of Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and William Faulkner to get into your “writer’s mind” and produce your best work.
Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits of great writers that might inspire you to think like a writer — and to develop a writing practice that optimizes your creativity.
Study the greats.
Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.
Marina Keegan, a brilliant young writer, died tragically just five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University. Her final essay for The Yale Daily News, “The Opposite Of Loneliness,” went viral and attracted over 1 million views the week after it was published.
In her too-short career, Keegan mastered the art of observation — perhaps a writer’s greatest asset. Keegan wrote in her application to a first-person writing class at Yale:
About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.
Daydreaming may get a bad rap — but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”
Write from your own truth.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez advised young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know.
“If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told,” García Márquez said. “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
Make writing your top priority.
Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else.
“Write first and always,” advises Miller. “Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”
Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.
Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”
But for the writing to come, you may have to nudge it along by finding a consistent source of inspiration. Stein says her best ideas came to her while she was driving around in her car looking at cows. She would write for only 30 minutes a day, driving around a farm and stopping at different cows until she found the one that most fit her mood.
Know what you’re getting yourself into.
Want to live the writer’s life? Great. But make sure you’re not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Find space for solitude.
Zadie Smith wrote in a list of rules for writers, “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.”
Particularly, Smith noted, the place where you write must be one of solitude. “Protect the time and space in which you write,” Smith writes. “Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”
If you’re stumped for writing material or unsure of whether you have enough life experience to draw from, try taking a little walk down memory lane. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.
When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there’s only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.
In her book of advice on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains that writers have to learn to take their projects one baby step at a time. The Traveling Mercies author writes:
My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
And with your novel-in-progress or next big feature? Take it bird by bird.
Compete against only yourself.
William Faulkner described the artist as a “creature driven by demons,” perpetually dissatisfied with his own work. While this dissatisfaction is to a certain degree inevitable (and productive), it can be kept in check by refusing to compare your work to that of others.
“[The writer] must never be satisfied with what he does,” Faulker told The Paris Review in 1956. “It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
Just do it.
Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: “Read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
And do it with joy.
Amen to that.
— Carolyn Gregoire
The following is an excerpt from Laura Bates’s Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Bates taught Shakespeare to solitary confinement prison inmates. She befriends a convicted murderer named Larry. The following is the story of their budding friendship:
“Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”
What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less!—and then to be able to flip the two-thousand page Complete Works book open and find the quote immediately:
“’When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound!’”
He smacks the book as he finishes reading. Meanwhile, I’m still scrambling to find the quote somewhere in
“Act uh . . . ?”
“Act five, scene four,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”
Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met in 2003 when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit and spent three years working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Larry Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.
“Everything okay in here?” he asks.
“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.
He shakes his head and walks on.
“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.
A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare.
* * *
I started doing volunteer work in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because of an argument with my husband’s friend, a theatre practitioner working in maximum-security prisons. “Those guys are beyond rehabilitation,” I insisted. “You should focus on first-time offenders.” And, to test out my own hypothesis, that’s what I did. At the time I could not have imagined that eventually I would be working in supermax—that is, the long-term solitary confinement unit, the prison within the prison.In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in prisons in Chicago and Indiana, I had never met an inmate who scared me. Until Larry Newton. The day we met, I was going cell to cell in the solitary confinement unit looking for prisoners interested in reading Shakespeare. Eventually, I would have as many as fifty prisoners on my waiting list, nearly one out of every four housed in the unit. At the beginning, I would have been happy to find at least one. But when I looked at Newton through the pegboard steel door of his cell, I crossed his name off of my list, thinking, “I can’t work with this one.”
So what was I doing one week later, fighting for special permission to get one of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners in the state’s supermax unit into my Shakespeare program? It wasn’t something in me; it was something in Newton. And it was obvious from the start. Not the first time he looked at me, or the first time he spoke to me, but the first time he wrote for me. It was in response to the initial Shakespeare assignment that I distributed to segregated prisoners as a way of screening prospective participants: a soliloquy from the last act of Shakespeare’s history play,
Spoken by the overthrown king who is now imprisoned, the speech begins: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Along with the speech, I attached a blank sheet of paper with one question:
While most prisoners scribbled a brief response, Newton submitted a full page, both sides, with incongruous smiley faces punctuating every other sentence:
That comment alone earned him a place in the program. Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out.
And his conclusion captured the deeper philosophical lesson about the meaning of life in Richard’s speech:
Wow. That was the most thoughtful response I had ever gotten to an initial Shakespeare assignment—in prison, or on campus. And Newton didn’t even know who Shakespeare was.
* * *
Whenever a participant left the program, I distributed a little survey in which I asked, “What has Shakespeare done for you?”“It helped me to expand my mind,” Green had written.
“It introduced me to a whole new world,” Jones had written.
“It got me out of my cell,” Guido had written.
After I watched Newton disappear down the hallway, I took the folded paper out of my pocket. It was the survey. What has Shakespeare done for you? He had written, “Shakespeare saved my life.”
My research confirmed that the program did have an effect: lessening the likelihood of violent incidents in a population with extensive histories of violence. I studied the conduct records of twenty of the most long-standing and active participants in the program and found that their combined conduct history accounted for more than 600 violent or Class A offenses, including weapons charges and assaults, in their “B.S.” (Before Shakespeare) years. During their time in the program, there were only two charges total: none of them were violent or Class A. In fact, of the hundreds of prisoners who have been in the program—some for months, some for years—not one violent offense was committed.
When Larry was out of segregation, and we were able to have normal conversations sitting side by side, without a steel door between us, I wanted to ask him to elaborate on what he had written in that survey he had handed me when he left the SHU.
“What did you mean,” I asked him, “when you said that Shakespeare saved your life?”
“I meant it both ways: literally and figuratively,” he told me. “Literally, Shakespeare saved my life. For so many years I had been really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day. I’m confident that I would’ve done something drastic and ended up on Death Row. Or I would’ve one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.”
It sounded like he was talking about suicide, but I couldn’t believe it—didn’t want to believe it.
“And I meant it figuratively,” he continued. “Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego: ‘What, are you soft? Ain’t you man enough to do it?’ As a consequence of that, I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realization that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own.
“And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery. I’m of the opinion that we are the source of our misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.”
Newton was the only prisoner I’ve ever met who was convicted as a juvenile and is serving life without parole. Through his work in the Shakespeare program, in college, in other prison programs and job assignments, as well as in his acceptance of responsibility in his crime, Larry consistently demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation for nearly ten years. But every request for the right to appeal his sentence was denied.
No matter what he does, he will never leave prison.
~ Laura Bates
I have built a city from the books I’ve read. There are thousands of books that go with me everywhere I go. A good book sings a timeless music that is heard in the choir lofts and balconies and theaters that thrive within that secret city inside me. I can walk the pleasure-giving streets of that illuminated, sleepless city anytime the compulsion strikes me, day or night. Some of the streets are flyblown and unsafe, with chamber pots emptied on them by the housewives and butlers whose thankless labors allowed royals to be royal throughout the long reign of the printed word. If you follow me closely, I can guide you to alleyways of quartz, amethyst, and sunbaked rubies. I’ve developed a soft spot for overgrown, ruined gardens that offer safe nesting sites for vireos and orioles and tanagers. Ospreys dive for mullet in palm-lined lagoons, and a Serengeti plain allows the migrations of wildebeests through rivers teeming with crocodiles and hippopotamuses, with lions and warthogs and flamingos gathering at water holes in darkness. My city has bright aquariums, and the harbor linking it to the oceans of the world is heavy with the traffic of ships as a great white whale moves toward the setting sun; as Caesar makes up his mind about crossing the Rubicon; as Jesus of Nazareth blesses the bread and wine of his final seder feast; as an Icelandic poet composes a saga out of the primitive savagery of ice; as a cattle car is loaded in the train yards of Poland; as Rumi enters a trance of ecstatic life in Damascus. The stars whirl above in their ancient scrimmage of light, and everyone in my city notices their astonishing arrangement that lends a note of both order and chaos.
In the writing room of my Fripp Island house, there is a chapel of ease with my library rising in terraces and shelves all around me. For several months I’ve done little but think about the books I’ve read and collected over the years, the ones that have changed and challenged and elated me—along with the ones that disappointed in their execution or in some failure of conception. I require a solid judgment of good books to lead me to those unmarked lairs and secret bonfires that will clear the way to my own path of enlightenment. Ever since I was a child, I have read books to make me savvy and uncommon, and to provide me some moments of sheer divinity where I can approach the interior borderlines of ecstasy itself. Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me.
My mother promised that reading would make me smart, and I found myself recruited in Mom’s battle over her own lack of a higher education. She distributed books to me as though they were communion wafers or the tongues of fire that lit up the souls of the disciples with Pentecostal clairvoyance. Mom would point her finger to a wall of books and tell me she was showing me the way out of a shame that was unutterable. I took whatever book she put into my hand and made it part of me. I made it the life of me, the essence of my own tree of knowledge. With each book, I built a city out of what my heart loved, my soul yearned for, and my eyes desired.
Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; others choose to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort. The subject of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death. I write a poem in hopes that my name will lie fresh on the tongues of language lovers a hundred years from now; I write a novel in case a poem is not enough. I create a city of fiction because I want to leave an entire, considered world behind me. When I open a window in a town that I’ve made up in my head, I want to make a world that readers can approach in wonder.
Reading great books gave me unlimited access to people I never would have met, cities I couldn’t visit, mountain ranges I would never lay eyes on, or rivers I would never swim. Through books I fought bravely in wars of both attrition and conquest. Before I’d ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary—I could form a sweet-smelling corps de ballet composed of the women I have loved in books.
I learned how to be a man through the reading of great books. Give me the courage of Prince Andrei as he dresses for the Battle of Borodino. Let me have one shot glass of the courage that Robert Jordan displays at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Give me the curiosity and resiliency of Garp, and a quest so great that I would ride as a sidekick to Don Quixote. Allow me to deliver the St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt or secrete myself into the wooden fretwork of the Trojan horse. Give me a father like the one who raised Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, or one with the integrity of Atticus Finch, or the courage of Colonel Aureliano Buendía as he faced the firing squad in the immemorial first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Permit me to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree through the eyes of Yeats, or the infinite glories of Fern Hill through the sensibility of Dylan Thomas; the beaches of Chile as Pablo Neruda courted a gorgeous woman with a Spanish language that soared above them on a condor’s wing.
I’ve always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. But I soon discovered that I’ve been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line—in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that’s a home place for the beaten child—I fell in love with that kid. I saw the many disguises that boy used to ward off solitude, hallucination, madness itself. I believe that the reading of great books saved his life. At any time, I could take a sudden departure from the fighter pilot’s house and find myself drifting through the tumult of Paris described in a book by Balzac. I could find myself on Whitman’s river-shaped Manhattan or be in Daisy Buchanan’s arms when I woke up with a hangover in The Great Gatsby. I’ve used books to take me on journeys all over the world, to outer space, and to forbidden planets beyond. I’ve crossed the Arabian Desert with T. E. Lawrence; refreshed myself on an oasis in Morocco with Paul Bowles; gone up a treacherous African river with Joseph Conrad; lived deeply in Atlanta’s Peachtree Road with Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve traveled through Iraq with Freya Stark and … I could write like this forever. My city of books seems immeasurable and inexhaustible, and I can feel the others jumping up and down with their hands raised, demanding my attention, insisting that their voices be heard and their ballots counted.
When I lived in the heart of ancient Rome for three years in the 1980s, I would often go up to sit on the top step of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Because I had read The Education of Henry Adams, I was well aware that Mr. Adams had sat in the same spot in silent homage to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon had lingered there as he took in the city’s vast majesties while deciding to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When I walked to the church after I had finished my writing for the day, I’d read from one of the five volumes of Gibbon’s masterpiece, knowing that I was occupying the same spot that sparked the great journey of Gibbon’s life. I was then in the middle of writing The Prince of Tides, and I’d always take the time to pass through the grand entryway of the Palazzo dei Conservatori to stare at a piece of broken marble embedded in the wall across from the colossal head of Constantine. Earlier, two Englishwomen had pointed out the word “BRIT” in the surviving fragment; they informed me that this was the first mention of the island of Britain in world history. They reminded me that the language that was our common heritage was forming on the tongues of illiterate savages who had fallen before the implacable surge of the Roman legions. It remains a sacred moment in my life. That same week, the great American writer Gore Vidal showed me the exact spot where Julius Caesar fell after his assassination. For two years I paid the maintenance fees for the grave of Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery along with John Keats, whose epitaph reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Often at night I find myself drifting through my library of thousands of books and feel the lamps of wisdom light up the candelabras of my city of books. Deep within me, I’ve constructed elaborate museums and labyrinths from those writers whose complete works I have read over the years. Before I was twenty-five I had read every book that Charles Dickens wrote. Jane Austen came next, then Balzac, though I surrendered after I read half of his voluminous production. Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway joined the reception line. When I bought a collection of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I returned home with a bright enthusiasm to begin the long march into the Russian soul. Though I’ve failed to read either man to completion, they both helped me to imagine that my fictional South Carolina was as vast a literary acreage as their Russia. Then I entered my Henry James period, and I polished off The Golden Bowl to complete my study of his work. When Gene Norris lay dying in Newberry I spent the summer reading Anthony Powell’s splendid collection A Dance to the Music of Time. Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison signed my dance card when the orchestra began to tune up in the main ballroom.
When I fell in love with a Dominican woman, she opened up to me a showy convention of Latin American writers from Márquez to Borges to Vargas Llosa, and I read everything of those writers that had been translated into English. My attraction to Latin American literature led me to explore the rich literature of other countries, and I discovered the amazing world of Australian writers, which led me on a direct path to the teeming cities of India and the astonishing work of the Israeli writers, who then pointed me in the direction of Cairo, where I encountered the Egyptian world of the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.
In a reading life, one thing leads to another in a circle of accident and chance. When I found a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees on a bench in Central Park, I remembered meeting him at a coffee bar in Rome, but the encounter was so low-key that I didn’t rush out to find his work. Once I did, he became one of my favorite writers. His Invisible Cities strikes me as a masterpiece of the first order. The book is a long epic poem, a glittering tour de force, an extinct volcano that comes roaring back to explosive life, a code of conduct into the mind’s interior realms, a delight and a paradox. I can’t pass a bookstore without slipping inside, looking for the next book that will burn my hand when I touch its jacket, or hand me over a promissory note of such immense power that it contains the formula that will change everything about me. Here is all I ask of a book—give me everything. Everything, and don’t leave out a single word.
The poets of the world occupy a place of high honor in my city of books. Those wizards of language draw me into the vast acreage of their talent. A book of poetry is made up of threads that coil around the soft bodies of sound. Stealing the linens of the spoken word, poets are not shy about displaying the rose windows and altar cloths of their prodigious art. When they arrive at my city gates, they clamor for entrance and scream out their poems to me from outside the city walls. I go to the poets often for their comfort in the maelstrom of their imaginations. Some of them write with a monastic clarity and simplicity that reduces art to its very essence. I prefer the poets who roll up their sleeves to show me intricate tattoos of peacocks and dragon-ravaged towns and clowns playing glockenspiels. Each day before I begin to write, I choose a poet to keep on my desk. Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself.
In other moods and other hours, I carry a keen desire for those poets who know how to trim the fat with blades turned deadly with whetstone. These are the poets who use language so sparingly they can nail your hand to a doorway. Each word comes to you hard-earned and deboned, flayed and boiled down to its essence. These astringent poets keep their tool belts full of instruments that carve and cut and sort. Cavafy writes poems of this nature and doesn’t clear his throat or raise his voice as he spreads his whole world on the table for inspection. William Carlos Williams became famous for his championing of a poem being as simple and lovely as a string of pearls. With all poets, it comes down to how they put words together and the effect those words have. Though they struggle to make a living, poets will always have the last word about how the language is shifting as we move into a distraught, rustled future. I like poets to light their fires, granting me permission to begin my own work for the day.
Across from where I write, I keep a strong-shouldered squad of poets at my beck and call. Though there is a frequent changing of the guard, I try to find the clearest, most mesmerizing voices to jump-start me into creation. These poets wink at me, knowing that I am praising them. It begins with The Beauty Wars, my sister Carol’s lyrical collection. Rumi, red-jacketed and whirling, follows my sister in his trancelike devotion to the dance of language. The next marksman in my squad is the sad-faced Federico García Lorca, shouldered against Wallace Stevens and Geoffrey Hill. Lisel Mueller is dancing with Eugenio Montale while Dylan Thomas is offering James Dickey a whiskey at the White Horse Tavern. Executing an about-face, I come up to inspect the tricorn hat of Marianne Moore, who is dressing herself for a windswept walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with her drinking buddy, Hart Crane. Three poetry books form a strong line of defense at the end of the squad: an anthology of Latin American poetry, the complete poems of Borges, and the collected works of Pablo Neruda. A young man or woman could take that string of books, study them with no small degree of fanaticism, and spend a far richer year than they ever did at a university.
Each day of my life begins with a poem that will unloose the avalanche of words inside me, that secret ore that, once polished, will sit before me disguised as the earth’s jewelry. I’ll select from its garnets, its milky-eyed opals, its insect-killing amber—it’s the language I revere above all. I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. That’s what a good book does—it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about—the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.
I return a final time to my city of literature, my honored city of books, and the glittering city of words that greets me as I walk through my library. On my desk lies a treasure sent to me by the bookseller Chan Gordon, who runs an excellent bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina. From his desk at the Captain’s Bookshelf, Chan has presented me with an exquisitely printed elegy by Thomas Meyer mourning the death of the poet Jonathan Williams. The pages are handmade, and the slender volume looks as though it might have been milled with butterfly wings and the armored enamel of ladybugs. The title of the poem is taken from an obscure yet enchanted Japanese word, kintsugi. When I read the title, I thought I’d been reading my whole life waiting to stumble upon this spellbound word camouflaged in the bonsai ferneries of a foreign language. “Kintsugi” is “the Japanese practice of repairing ceramics with gold-laced lacquer to illuminate the breakage.” Ah, I thought, there is no attempt to hide the breakage—that golden, beautiful lacquer emphasizes the harm to the crockery or stemware. As Thomas Meyer bids farewell to the poet, he turns his words into a gold fluid that hardens along the fault lines that are ending the poet’s life. Because I love to read, Thomas Meyer comforts me over the loss of Jonathan Williams and offers me a deep shell of metaphor that I can use to help explain my own writing to myself. Though I have always known that pain was a ham-fisted player in my novels, I didn’t understand that I had used the radiant lacquers of the language to mark the wounds and fissures I had forced upon my characters. Though I was aware I hurt and damaged many of the characters I’d grown to love in my books, I never knew I practiced the subtle art of kintsugi until Thomas Meyer let me in on the secret.
In Vienna in 1982, I was met at the train station by the American novelist Jonathan Carroll. Someone had sent him a copy of The Lords of Discipline, and he’d liked it enough to invite me to visit him. He’d also sent me an inscribed copy of his book The Land of Laughs, and I received it with much excitement. His penmanship was lush and wondrous, and he drew pictures of bull terriers next to his autograph. When I read the book, I entered into such a strange and oddball country of the spirit that I was thrown off. Then the magic happened, the feeling I always wait for, as the book began to launch itself into orbit. I found myself in perfect congruity with the navigator and started trusting the narrator’s insistent voice. Since that first book, I’ve read every book that Jonathan Carroll has published, from Bones of the Moon and A Child Across the Sky to White Apples. I’ve read no other writer like him, because there is no other even remotely similar. Anything goes in his books. In America, I once called him a cult waiting to be born. In Poland, thousands line up for his autograph. He’s the kind of guy who wins the Nobel Prize at the end of his life when no one in his native land even knows his name.
On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I thought she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage.
“That’s what writers do, Conroy,” he said. “We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.”
~ Pat Conroy
This charming and chirpy video pays tribute to the happy wholesomeness of being alone. Tanya Davis recites her poem about the ways of solitude, gently cataloging all the places where aloneness can bring freedom and healing. Whether at a lunch counter, park bench, mountain trail, or on the edge of a dance floor — all we have to do is love ourselves enough, to love being alone.
If you are at first lonely, be patient. If you’ve not been alone much, or if when you were, you weren’t okay with it, then just wait. You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.
We could start with the acceptable places, the bathroom, the coffee shop, the library. Where you can stall and read the paper, where you can get your caffeine fix and sit and stay there. Where you can browse the stacks and smell the books. You’re not supposed to talk much anyway so it’s safe there.
There’s also the gym. If you’re shy you could hang out with yourself in mirrors, you could put headphones in.
And there’s public transportation, because we all gotta go places.
And there’s prayer and meditation. No one will think less if you’re hanging with your breath seeking peace and salvation.
Start simple. Things you may have previously avoided based on your avoid being alone principals.
The lunch counter. Where you will be surrounded by chow-downers. Employees who only have an hour and their spouses work across town and so they — like you — will be alone.
Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.
When you are comfortable with eat lunch and run, take yourself out for dinner. A restaurant with linen and silverware. You’re no less intriguing a person when you’re eating solo dessert to cleaning the whipped cream from the dish with your finger. In fact some people at full tables will wish they were where you were.
Go to the movies. Where it is dark and soothing. Alone in your seat amidst a fleeting community. And then, take yourself out dancing to a club where no one knows you. Stand on the outside of the floor till the lights convince you more and more and the music shows you. Dance like no one’s watching… because, they’re probably not. And, if they are, assume it is with best of human intentions. The way bodies move genuinely to beats is, after all, gorgeous and affecting. Dance until you’re sweating, and beads of perspiration remind you of life’s best things, down your back like a brook of blessings.
Go to the woods alone, and the trees and squirrels will watch for you. Go to an unfamiliar city, roam the streets, there’re always statues to talk to and benches made for sitting give strangers a shared existence if only for a minute and these moments can be so uplifting and the conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself
Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.
You could stand, swathed by groups and mobs or hold hands with your partner, look both further and farther for the endless quest for company. But no one’s in your head and by the time you translate your thoughts, some essence of them may be lost or perhaps it is just kept.
Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school’s groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you’re happy in your head then solitude is blessed and alone is okay.
It’s okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can’t think like you, for this be relieved, keeps things interesting lifes magic things in reach.
And it doesn’t mean you’re not connected, that communitie’s not present, just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it. take silence and respect it. if you have an art that needs a practice, stop neglecting it. if your family doesn’t get you, or religious sect is not meant for you, don’t obsess about it.
You could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it
If your heart is bleeding make the best of it
There is heat in freezing, be a testament.
~ Tanya Davis
After 244 years reference book firm Encyclopaedia Britannica has decided to stop publishing its famous and weighty 32-volume print edition.
It will now focus on digital expansion amid rising competition from websites such as Wikipedia.
The firm, which used to sell its encyclopaedias door-to-door, now generates almost 85% its revenue from online sales.
It recently launched a digital version of its encyclopaedias for tablet PCs.
“The sales of printed encyclopaedias have been negligible for several years,” said Jorge Cauz president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“We knew this was going to come.”
‘A lot faster’
Companies across the globe have been trying to boost their online presence in a bid to cash in on the fast-growing market.
Various newspapers, magazines and even book publishers have been coming up with online versions of their products as an increasing number of readers access information on high-tech gadgets such as tablet PCs and smartphones.
Britannica said while its decision to focus on online editions was influenced by the shift in consumer pattern, the ability to update content at a short notice also played a big role.
“A printed encyclopaedia is obsolete the minute that you print it,” Mr Cauz said.
“Whereas our online edition is updated continuously.”
At the same time, frequent users of the encyclopaedia said they preferred using the online version more than the print one.
“We have to answer thousands of questions each month through chat, through telephone, through email and we have to do that as quickly as humanly possible,” Richard Reyes-Gavilan of Brooklyn Public Library told the BBC.
“In many instances doing a keyword search in an online resource is simply a lot faster then standing up looking at the index of the Britannica and then finding the appropriate volume.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica, the company, has largely moved away from its encyclopedia work focusing most of its energies in recent years on educational software.
~Source: BBC News
FOR three years after the death of her adored eldest sister, Anne-Marie, Nina Sankovitch mourned by staying relentlessly busy. She felt a guilt-strafed survivor’s obligation to live life enough for two.
The mother of four sons, she signed up for PTA committees, coached soccer and a Lego robotics team, taught art appreciation classes to elementary school students, took Pilates classes and parenting classes, joined a book group and a tennis group, began kayaking, started a theater group for children in her basement and a Web site for trading books, gardened ferociously and wrote a novel (unpublished).
But in her increasingly frantic efforts to taste joy for herself and her sister, she tasted only ashes. She would still wake in the night, sobbing.
Finally, she jettisoned almost all her commitments in favor of the one pursuit that had always given her special pleasure. She committed herself to reading a book a day for an entire year.
“After years of chasing after joy, I finally sat down and let it come to me,” Ms. Sankovitch, 48, a tall, tennis-vibrant woman, said over coffee at her kitchen table in Westport, Conn. A photo triptych of Anne-Marie in thick reading glasses, posing in merry solidarity with Ms. Sankovitch’s son Peter, wearing his first pair, gleams from a rosewood frame nearby.
On Oct. 28, 2008, her 46th birthday, Ms. Sankovitch began the project, dedicating it to Anne-Marie, who died four months after receiving a diagnosis of bile-duct cancer, a week shy of turning 47. That last day, driving home from an encouraging visit with her sister in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch got the phone call, pulled her car to the side of the road and screamed.
In the resulting memoir, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” (Harper Collins), whose title alludes to her reading armchair of cat-clawed, faded purple brocade, Ms. Sankovitch writes about that redemptive year of contemplation. The book is also an account of her family traumas: not only the death of Anne-Marie but also the World War II murders of three of her father’s siblings. It is a meditation on grief and healing, on values held sacred by her family and the life well lived. It is, of course, a paean to reading.
“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure,” said Ms. Sankovitch, an accomplished environmental lawyer who gradually gave up practicing after she had children. Now she was seeking answers about “how to live with sorrow and how to find my place in the world.”
While the mechanics of the project could occasionally be daunting, Ms. Sankovitch found the solace she yearned for. Books like “The Laws of Evening,” the short story collection by Mary Yukari Waters, taught her about addressing loss. “The characters were past the denial stage, past anger,” she said. “They were figuring out how to go on living with loss. Everyone’s solution was different, but many used memory to cope, as proof that good things will come again.”
Diana Athill reinforced that lesson. “Somewhere Towards the End” is a memoir she published at 91. “Every day is still a new day for her,” Ms. Sankovitch said.
Sitting in Ms. Sankovitch’s sunny kitchen, as her sons, ages 10 through 17, tromp in and out of the house, and talking books with her can be just plain fun. As she trades ideas about characters, her blue eyes sparkle. She opens a worn notepad to jot down unfamiliar titles.
“I do read a Kindle on the exercise bike, but I love a real book, especially from the library or a used one,” she said. “I like knowing that other people have held it. I like reading what others have scribbled in the margins. I’ve even seen people make little grammar-correcting marks.”
Seeking safe haven in reading was natural for a woman who grew up in a family of book worshippers. Her middle sister, Natasha, had been a comparative literature professor (later a lawyer); her Belgian mother, Tilde, taught French literature at Northwestern. The year her Belarusian father, Anatole, now a retired surgeon, spent in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, he and another patient read novels aloud to each other. The books Ms. Sankovitch read to her young sons, all passionate readers, include volumes of poetry she had written for them.
Reading was a means of communication for her close-knit family, with its European formality. “My parents are private people,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “Americans are raised to ask personal questions. But I feel that if something isn’t my business, I won’t pry. Books are a shield and a way to get closer to those questions, so you can talk about taboo subjects. You can have those intimate conversations without prying.”
Anne-Marie was an art historian who loved the written word, and the sisters, unlike in many ways, often found common ground through books. “She was smarter than me and more beautiful,” Ms. Sankovitch said sadly, recalling her sister. “But I was more fearless and socially adept. She didn’t suffer fools. I’d been at dinner parties where she would up and leave if she was bored. But she was a saint to me.”
In “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,” she describes how she and other family members would bring books to Anne-Marie’s sickbed. The visits often included book chats. After her death, the family dedicated a bench in her memory in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where passers-by can sit, contemplate the surrounding blooming beauty and read.
During her reading year, Ms. Sankovitch received recommendations for books from readers of a blog she had started (readallday.org), where she posted short reviews of each book. She also drew inspiration from the deep, eclectic collection in the Westport Public Library.
“My year would have been different with a different library, in a different town,” she said. She discovered new stacks, exploring genres outside her comfort zone of novels: essays, plays, science fiction, travel.
Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she’d try to finish each book in about four hours. She still did the laundry and carpooling, reading while the boys were in school, percolating at night, posting in the morning.
She described her reviews as “a public diary.”
“They’re not intellectual dismemberment,” she continued, “but more of my emotional response to the book.”
About “Little Bee,” the devastating novel by Chris Cleave, she wrote: “We connect to those we can see and touch; we protect the ones we can. But even then, a sister can die, and you won’t even know it until you get the phone call driving home over the Henry Hudson Bridge after what you thought was a very good day.”
The quixotic intensity of the project did not surprise those who know Ms. Sankovitch: she seems hard-wired for the full-bore experience. When tennis elbow threatened to forfeit her daily match with her husband, Jack Menz, a Manhattan lawyer (their home sits on two acres, including a clay court), she switched to her left hand, playing poorly but gamely. As a young associate at a Manhattan firm, a position demanding 16-hour days, she was focused and efficient, largely because other priorities called, including books. She would skip lunch and close her door to read for pleasure.
Once, while biking, recalled Stephanie Young, a friend from Harvard Law School, Ms. Sankovitch mentioned that her father advised “everything in moderation.”
At that, Ms. Young laughed. “Nina doesn’t do anything in moderation,” she said. “While she was telling us this, she was eating her sixth FrozFruit bar.”
As Ms. Sankovitch began to emerge from grief during her year of reading, her husband said the impact on the entire family was salutary.
“Nina had such a serenity,” Mr. Menz said. “And part of it was that the pace of her life was just slower than everyone else’s. We had fun dinners, because you’d not only hear about what our guys did during the day, but Nina would talk about the new characters she had just read. I’d watch Giants games with our son Michael, and she’d be there, but reading. We just gave her that space.”
Now, Ms. Sankovitch’s own readers have written her, saying that her memoir has become their handbook about how to read through grief.
“I am so happy that what I found in books, someone else might have found in mine,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “It’s all back to Anne-Marie, what a tribute to her.” She is thinking of writing a new book, based on letters from the late 19th century that she found in the family’s former Upper West Side brownstone.
And she is still reading. Last November, she proposed that she and her husband tackle “War and Peace” together. He somehow set it aside.
Naturally, Ms. Sankovitch finished. But not until January.
Some books are just not meant to be read in a day.