Friday is here, I’m back in New York, and it’s time once again for the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I wax enthusiastic in today's paper about two new shows, Susan and God and Macbeth:
The most interesting thing about playgoing in New York isn’t Broadway—exciting though it can be—but the plethora of tiny Off Broadway troupes that make magic on the cheap. The Mint Theater Company, one of the best, specializes in neglected plays deserving of a second chance, which it performs in a coffin-shaped room on the third floor of a dingy office building in the theater district. The Mint’s productions are always worthy and often revelatory, never more so than in the case of Rachel Crothers’ “Susan and God,” a long-lost Broadway smash from 1937 that wowed the critics, played to packed houses, was filmed by MGM, then sank from sight. This is its first New York revival since 1943, and it is a major event, a pitch-perfect production of a 69-year-old play whose subject matter is so modern in flavor that it could have been written last week….
I feared the worst when I opened the program to the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Macbeth” and found not one but two open letters in which Oskar Eustis, the company’s artistic director, assured me that the play I was about to see was “all too appropriate a choice” for a “divided and war-torn nation” engaged in a “vaguely defined war on terror.” Nor was I encouraged to learn that Moisés Kaufman, the director, was offering us a modern-dress “Macbeth” performed in a bombed-out palace strewn with rubble. It suggested a party game for precocious kids: “How many clichés can you spot?” Yet Mr. Kaufman, for all his political preoccupations, is also a true showman, and he has somehow managed to turn these week-old leftovers into a thriller full of sumptuous pageantry and drenched in buckets of stage blood….
No link. You know what to do: either (A) buy a copy of the Journal or (B) go here and follow instructions. Me, I recommend Plan B, but the Journal on paper is infinitely better than no Journal at all.
Upon returning to New York from Smalltown, U.S.A., I found in my waiting pile of incoming snail mail a contract for a five-hundred-word piece I recently wrote for an upcoming issue of a Magazine Which Must Remain Nameless. It consisted in the main of the usual you-agree-to-let-us-do-whatever-the-hell-we-want boilerplate, but the following paragraph was new to me:
8. You agree to use your best efforts to participate in the promotion and marketing of the Work and The Magazine Which Must Remain Nameless by making reference to the Work andThe Magazine Which Must Remain Nameless in settings including, but not limited to, articles or books written by or about you or the Work, interviews, editorials, press conferences, press releases, television appearances, Internet Web sites maintained and operated by you, and any other media available for the promotion of the Work to which you have access.
My immediate impulse was to scrawl Screw you, buddy! across the face of the contract and send it back in the stamped, self-addressed envelope thoughtfully supplied by the Magazine Which Must Remain Nameless. After further consideration, though, I decided that it was more important to get paid than strike a pose, so I signed the contract—grudgingly—and dropped it in the mail.
The whole dismal exercise put me in mind of the following passage from Patrick O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal:
“As for Gibbon, now,” said Stephen when they were settled by the fire again, “I do remember the first lines. They ran ‘It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the laws according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation.’”
Or, as Auberon Waugh observed in his autobiography, more succinctly but no less devastatingly, “Honourable causes are seldom advanced by the employment of lawyers.”
I’d say that includes common courtesy, wouldn’t you?
UPDATE:This guy soooo missed the point, which didn’t strike me as especially subtle. An author who isn’t willing to publicize his own work by any and all available means is an idiot. In the immortal words of John L. Lewis, “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.” On the other hand, a magazine that tries to make him do so by stuffing yet another lawyer-drafted clause into its two-foot-long standard-form contract is…but you get the idea, right? Don’t you?
• I take the visible world at face value, experiencing it first of all as an abstract panorama of colors, shapes, and patterns. This makes it possible for me to gaze out the window of a train or an airplane for long stretches of time, wholly absorbed in the stream of images unfolding before my eyes. It also explains why my initial response to a figurative painting rarely has anything to do with its subject matter, to the point that I'm capable of overlooking the most obvious of representational details.
No doubt this quirk of mine arises from the fact that music, the most radically ambiguous of all art forms, was the one with which I first became closely acquainted. Perhaps as a result of my early musical training, I tend not to worry overmuch about what any work of art “means,” except when it insists on its “meaning” so aggressively that you can’t possibly overlook it, in which case I'm likely to find the results tiresome or irritating.
It's my impression, however, that most people approach art in exactly the opposite way: they view a work of art as an act of symbolic communication whose “meaning” is fully knowable, and they become uncomfortable, even anxious, if they can’t figure it out more or less immediately.
Flannery O’Connor once said something highly relevant in this connection:
If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
• I dreamed last night that a friend of mine had a nervous breakdown after being bumped from a reality TV series. No part of this dream makes sense: I don’t watch that kind of show, and the friend in question doesn’t even own a TV set. To be sure, I don’t care for such reality TV as I've been unlucky enough to see. Back when the genre was new, I watched one episode apiece of Survivor, The Real World, and American Idol, and loathed them all. But that was the end of it: except for a short piece written for the New York Times in 2002 and later collected in A Terry Teachout Reader, I’ve had next to nothing to say about reality TV in or out of print, nor do I sit around my apartment at night thinking evil thoughts about Simon Cowell. So why did I dream so vividly about something that means so little to me?
• An old friend writes, apropos of my recent postings from Smalltown, U.S.A.:
I was just wondering...do you think you could ever be happy outside the big city again? I mean to live. Are the artistic offerings essential to your happiness? I read you appreciating your escapes but wonder how you would “be” if you were someplace quiet for very long.
I wonder. Having been a New Yorker for twenty-odd years, I can't easily imagine living in a place that didn’t offer a like amount of artistic stimulation. On the other hand, I don’t spend nearly as much time on the town as I did before I fell ill last December, and even if I were to move elsewhere, I’d presumably take my books and CDs with me (not to mention the Teachout Museum).
My guess is that what I’d miss most about New York is not so much its “artistic offerings” as the regular face-to-face contact with artistically inclined people that living here makes so easy. I know art isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most important thing in my world, and in the absence of friends and colleagues with whom I can talk about it, I start to get restless.
It hasn't escaped my attention, by the way, that this restlessness bespeaks a certain narrowness of mind on my part. Some of the nicest people I know don't care about art.
My mother and I packed a picnic lunch this morning and drove to Bollinger Mill, a flour mill built in 1868 next to a covered bridge of like vintage. It’s as pretty and peaceful as its picture, an oasis of quiet in what seems like the middle of nowhere, though in fact it’s only fifteen miles from Cape Girardeau, a good-sized college town. When we were finished eating, we sat by the creek and listened to the water rushing over the dam, then headed south to a favorite drive-in just outside of Benton (pop. 732), the county seat, where I had my annual chocolate malt. Later on we watched the 1962 film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight, and afterward we sat together on the porch swing and watched the moon rise.
Now I’m packing my bag and listening to Louis Armstrong singing “Blueberry Hill.” The shuttle bus will pick me up at six-thirty tomorrow morning to whisk me back to the St. Louis airport. I’ll spend two nights in New York, then fly down to the Georgia Shakespeare Festival to see Hamlet and Twelfth Night. I hope I enjoy them half as much as I enjoyed my visit to Smalltown, U.S.A.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
"The sooner you learn that you're a vessel, the quicker your fear goes away. Because when you're younger, you sort of go out there thinking, Look at me! Watch me! But once you understand you're a vessel for the playwright your fear disappears."
Frank Langella (quoted in Acting: Working in the Theatre)
Nobody walks anywhere in a small town, except maybe next door or across the street. When I told my mother I was going to walk downtown to buy a belt, she boggled. It took me a good ten minutes to persuade her that I wasn’t kidding, and another five to talk her out of driving downtown to pick me up after I’d made my purchase.
It’s been years since I last took a long walk in Smalltown, U.S.A. Much has changed since then, though mostly only on the surface. I walked across a couple of dusty, weedy vacant lots that once held stores at which I shopped when young, and I saw quite a few buildings that had changed virtually beyond recognition in the thirty-two years since I went off to college. One of them used to be a fire station, the same one I visited on a first-grade field trip. Now it’s a schoolhouse, an Adult Basic Education Center. I wonder if the fire pole is still there.
Yet most of the sights I saw were as familiar-looking as my own name. I strolled by a white water tower with SMALLTOWN painted on the tank in big black letters. I passed half a dozen boxy brick churches whose outdoor signs bore inviting messages (“Where Friends Become Family”). I peered into the show window of Collins Piano, the store where my parents bought me the spinet on which I learned to play, and where I later purchased my very first album of modern classical music, an LP containing Isaac Stern’s performances of the Berg Violin Concerto and the Bartók Rhapsodies. How on earth did it get there? I've always wondered.
Not only did most things look the same, but they sounded and smelled the same. I heard the purr of air conditioners and the whine of lawnmowers. I smelled fried onions on the morning air and knew I was a block away from Kirby’s Sandwich Shop. I heard a loud roar far above me, looked up, and saw a twin-engine plane descending from the cloud-filled sky, headed for the Smalltown airport.
At length I arrived at Falkoff’s Men’s Shop, where I’ve been buying clothes for nearly forty years. David Friedman, the proprietor, greeted me with a smile, and smiled even more broadly when I told him that my old belt was two sizes too big for me now. He last saw me six months and forty pounds ago, and he was happy to see how well I looked.
It was two degrees hotter by the time I left for home, but a breeze was blowing, and most of the streets down which I walked were lined with tall, shady trees that made my return trip pleasant. Just as I was crossing Malone Street, I heard a familiar roar, looked up, and saw the same twin-engine plane that had landed a half-hour before climbing back into the sky, this time headed in the opposite direction.
An hour later my mother and I were eating potato soup at Vanessa’s Coffee Shop, the newest restaurant in Smalltown. “I can’t believe you walked all that way,” she told me.
“I needed the exercise,” I told her. “Besides, it was fun.”
“Did you see anyone you knew?”
“Not a soul. Except for two kids dribbling a basketball, I didn’t see anyone else on foot.”
My mother shook her head. “Nobody walks anywhere in Smalltown,” she said.
I got up this morning and wrote my Wall Street Journal drama column in a setting different from the office-bedroom where I normally pass my working hours.
In New York I sit at a desk placed next to a window that looks down on a quiet block of brownstones. When I glance up from my iBook, I see Fairfield Porter’s Ocean II, a Max Beerbohm caricature of Percy Grainger, a pair of etchings by Degas and Matisse, and a bookshelf containing Fowler’s English Usage, the two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, A Terry Teachout Reader, the Library of America’s one-volume Flannery O’Connor collection, and well-thumbed copies of the Viking Portables devoted to Johnson and Boswell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Conrad. Behind me is a set of wooden shelves holding three thousand compact discs.
In Smalltown I sit at a rickety, ink-stained card table that’s as old as I am, set up next to the bed in which I slept as a teenager. When I glance up from my iBook, I see a homemade bookshelf (my father built it) full of tattered paperbacks, a complete set of Reader’s Digest Best-Loved Books for Young Readers, and a short stack of dusty 45s by such artists as Ray Anthony, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Daniels, Vic Damone, Stan Kenton, the McGuire Sisters, and Jo Stafford. A chromolithograph of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall behind me. To my left is a telephone with a dial. The only modern things in sight are the laptop computer on which I’m writing these words and the iPod on which I listen to music, both of which I brought with me.
I filed my column at one-thirty, then took my mother to lunch at Susie’s Bake Shoppe. People eat early in Smalltown, and no one else was in the dining room when we got there. My mother ordered quiche, the special of the day. “If you’d gone to a restaurant and ordered quiche back when I was a boy,” I told her, “nobody around here would have known what you were talking about.” She laughed.
After lunch we drove to the cemetery where my father was buried eight years ago, then returned home and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and puttering. At six o’clock we turned on the TV to watch the local news. The anchors were a white man and a black woman, and one of the reporters had a strong Indian accent. “You wouldn’t have seen that when I was a boy, either,” I said, thinking of the lynching my father witnessed in Smalltown six decades ago.
We ate supper after the news. As we were clearing away the dishes, my brother stopped by to watch the second half of Broken Trail with us. Then he went home—he lives three blocks away—and my mother picked up her cane, kissed me goodnight, and went to bed. I retired to my bedroom, booted up my iBook, dialed up Earthlink, and checked my e-mail, which consisted of messages from a blogger and a jazz musician. As I read them, I heard the low whistle of a freight train rolling through town, the same sound that called to me long ago, summoning me to the world beyond the city limits of Smalltown, U.S.A.
The time came when I obeyed that summons, and ever since then I’ve lived in big cities. Yet I keep on coming back to Smalltown two or three times a year, each time returning to the same room in the same house in the same neighborhood, a block from my elementary school and three blocks from my high school. They say that no matter how long you live or how far you travel, you can't get very far from the place where you grew up. I wouldn't know—I’ve never tried.
UPDATE: A friend writes:
My mom died in 1979, we emptied her house and sold it and I've never been back. My dad had moved, long before, to Alabama and was living with a third wife. Not a home. My dear aunt died in 1999, so the haven she had been to me was gone. There is no home for some of us to get back to…so I felt a little envious reading what you wrote, even though I know there can be a pervading gloom in those shabby old rooms.
"Horace, I believe that is hitting a man when he is down. One so seldom meets an example of it, as it is so strictly forbidden. That almost suggests it is the natural moment to choose. Hitting a man when he is up, does have to be strongly recommended."
No sooner did I come back to New York on Friday than I plunged into a brief but intense stint of playgoing: I saw Pig Farm on Friday night, Susan and God on Saturday afternoon, and Macbeth in Central Park on Saturday night. The last was a near-run thing, for it was raining until an hour before curtain time, and it looked like it was going to start raining again all the way through the performance.
I awoke at five-thirty on Sunday morning, packed my bags, made my way to LaGuardia Airport (about which more here), and flew from there to St. Louis, where I caught a shuttle bus to Smalltown, U.S.A. At two o’clock I was eating chicken-salad sandwiches with my mother and flipping through her high-school yearbook, published in 1946. Five hours later we sat down with my brother to watch the first installment of Broken Trail, and now I’m headed for bed.
This is the first time I’ve been home since Christmas. My mother was pleased to see that I’d lost forty pounds and acquired a rosy hue in my cheeks. (Apparently I was looking a trifle wan for several weeks prior to my visit to the hospital.) I shared the bus from St. Louis to Smalltown with a seventy-seven-year-old woman who asked me where I was from. I told her I’d grown up in southeast Missouri but was now living in New York City, to which she replied, “How nice! Do you go to school there?” I hooted loudly, thanked her kindly, and tried to imagine how weak and scared I must have looked the last time I was in Smalltown.
I’ll be spending Monday morning writing my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal, after which I plan to buy a new belt, eat a very modest amount of barbecue, and take it easy. Not to worry: you’ll be hearing from me at regular intervals between now and my return to New York on Thursday. Right now, though, I’m more than ready to turn in.
In my latest “Sightings” column, published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I discuss a question that’s been on my mind for some time now: why are America’s best regional theater companies not as well known as our museums, symphony orchestras, and opera companies?
Time for a pop quiz: name three important fine-arts institutions that are not located in (A) New York City or (B) the place where you live.
I recently asked this question of 20 art-conscious friends all across the U.S. Between them, they listed 42 different institutions, seven of which received more than one vote. Most frequently cited was the Art Institute of Chicago, with four votes.
Only five of them mentioned a theater company.
I took this informal poll in the same week that Seattle’s Intiman Theatre won the Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. It’s been presented annually since 1976 to such distinguished ensembles as Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, all of which I covered enthusiastically for the Journal in the past year. Not one of them was mentioned. The only person to vote for the Intiman was a former resident of Seattle....
Each year it grows more difficult to persuade the arts editors of major newspapers and magazines—even those that pay fairly close attention to theater in New York—to send their drama critics to other cities, save for an occasional trip to London. As for TV, forget about it. I can’t remember the last time PBS aired an out-of-town production. Regional theater, it seems, just isn’t glamorous enough to make the journalistic cut.
Yet most of the best live drama in America is to be found in what Variety still insists on calling “the stix.” The vast majority of large and medium-sized American cities can boast of at least one high-quality repertory company, and many have more than that. On any given night you can see about as many plays in Chicago or Washington, D.C., as you can in New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t far behind....
The Journal has posted a free link to this column, so to read the whole thing—of which there is much more—go here.
Don’t laugh, but I didn’t know that my new iBook was WiFi-enabled until Jools, one of the miracle workers from Ms Mac, paid me a service call back in March. Even then I didn’t have any occasion to use this fancy new feature until last month, when I stayed in a hotel in Oregon where it was taken for granted that all guests would connect wirelessly to the Web. I fired up my untested WiFi gizmo, found it good, used it without incident, and promptly forgot about it from the moment I checked out until today, when I arrived way too early at LaGuardia and decided to see what it felt like to pull my laptop out of my shoulder bag and surf the Web, connected to nothing at all but my lap.
I suppose most of us have felt at one time or another the urge to pull up stakes and go off the grid. As a boy I watched Charles Kuralt on the evening news and dreamed of driving around America in a self-contained motor home, beholden to no one and no place. I didn't know at the time that Kuralt and his TV crew never actually slept in their motor home, having found it too cramped. Instead, they checked into a motel every night they spent on the road. A number of years later, my father bought a used motor home from which he derived great satisfaction, but it would never have occurred to him to park it off the grid. Whenever he and my mother went “camping,” they drove straight to a trailer park, plugged in the power, hooked up the water and sewer lines, turned on the air conditioner, and partook of the great outdoors from a safe, comfortable distance.
Long ago I promised myself that someday I’d rent a motor home and do some Kuralt-style roaming, staying not in trailer parks or Holiday Inns but wherever I damn well pleased. Alas, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, and at fifty I suspect I never will. Instead I’m sitting at Gate D-8 of LaGuardia Airport, posting these words on my blog and wondering exactly what the big deal is. The point of travel, after all, is to be somewhere else doing something else, and since I routinely spend large chunks of my life in New York sitting at a desk, checking my e-mail and surfing the Web, I can’t see any good reason to do the same thing in an airport. I’m on my way to Smalltown, U.S.A., to visit my family, and when I get there this afternoon I’ll set up a card table in my bedroom and reluctantly establish an electronic beachhead. Why rush the process?
The first time I flew in a plane equipped with Airfones, I made a special point of calling my mother from midair, which impressed her no end. I never did it again. Similarly, I have a feeling that today’s venture into airport blogging will be a one-time-only event, unless I should find myself stuck in STL or LAX with several unexpected hours of time on my hands—and maybe not even then. Airports are for reading and listening to music, not blogging, just as trains are for looking out the window, not checking e-mail. Life is busy enough without plugging up such welcome chinks in the wall of constant activity.
For all these reasons, this study in the effects of postmodern technology on leisure time is now officially concluded. My plane leaves in an hour and five minutes, and two or three hours after that I’ll be in Smalltown, sitting down to lunch with my mother. Tonight will be quite soon enough to plug in again, and tomorrow will be even better. I’ll see you then.
Friday again, and time for my Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser (posted by the grace of Our Girl—I'm down in Alabama, sans computer). Allow me, if you will, to dangle in front of your nose tantalizingly brief excerpts from my reviews of three shows.
First, Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places, now playing at 59E59 Theaters:
Mr. Ayckbourn's entry in the “Brits Off Broadway” festival currently underway at 59E59 Theaters is a more or less typical piece of Ayckbournian plot-juggling in which the lives of six lonely Londoners are made to intersect in a variety of unpredictable ways, some funny and others desperately sad. I can't come any closer to describing the effect of “Private Fears in Public Places” than to say that it suggests Terence Rattigan revised by David Ives. Written in 54 crisp scenes (some of them wordless) and acted on a small stage divided into five playing areas, it moves with whirligig speed, glittering craftsmanship and an exhilarating dash of craziness...
Second, the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Euripides' Hecuba, playing through Sunday at Brooklyn's BAM Opera House:
Tony Harrison, the translator, decided that Euripides' ever-modern Trojan War tale of slavery and vengeance was in need of updating. I bet you can see the punch line coming: He's set the whole thing in Iraq, jerking around the original Greek in order to make it more “relevant.” (Among other overbearingly vulgar touches, he's rendered “the army of Hellas” as “the coalition force.”) The set consists of five tiers of olive-drab American-style tents, the enslaved Trojan women are dressed in Muslim-style garb and sing Arabic-style chants, the sound effects…oh, the hell with it.
Last but not least, Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.:
If the actors would tighten up the screws a half-turn and knock five minutes off the running time, I wouldn't have a single nit to pick. Dixie Carter is devastatingly sexy as Mrs. Erlynne, the Lady in Red whose deep, dark secret sets the plot in motion, and everyone else in the almost-all-American cast supports her with the utmost aplomb, flinging epigrams into the breeze like lit firecrackers….
Guess what? The Journal has posted a free link to this week's column! It's an experiment—the powers-that-be have decided to try making selected drama columns available from time to time and see what happens. To read the whole thing on line, go to the Online Journal's Today's Free Features page and click on the appropriate link (it'll be obvious).
As always, you're welcome to pick up a copy of today's Journal at your corner newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal. You'll be glad you did.
“Form is everything. Without it you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe sort of cry, sincere maybe, for what it's worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance, but you don't have grief.”
I'm off again, this time to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where I'll be seeing five plays in three days and (presumably) eating some grits. Our Girl will post the daily almanac and my regular Friday-morning drama-column teaser by remote control from her top-secret headquarters in Chicago, but otherwise I'll be incommunicado until Monday. Any additional postings that materialize between now and then are strictly her doing.
Well, I did it: I bought another piece of art, a 1965 hard ground etching and drypoint by Richard Diebenkorn. You can see it by going here, and you can find out more about Diebenkorn here.
Please don't tease me too much! I've loved Diebenkorn's work for years, and I never thought I'd be able to afford a prize specimen like this one (his “Ocean Park” color lithographs and aquatints are already way over my financial head, alas). Then I ran across #32 last week on the Web site of a Seattle gallery and struck a mutually satisfactory deal with the very nice owner. Now it's en route to the Teachout Museum, where it will be well and truly cherished.
I know, I know, where am I going to hang the damn thing? Er, ask me later—I'll figure something out. I guess that makes me a real art collector, huh?
If you follow media news at all closely, you've read about the Los Angeles Times editorial page's abortive experiment with creating wikitorials. I knew it was doomed from the start, as did everyone who knows anything about how new media work, and I'd planned to post something about it at some point. Now Jeff Jarvis has done it for me.
Here's the gist:
Here is the Times' worst mistake and its most predictable: They think everything is about them. I've sat in meetings with newspaper editors who earnestly think that the best use of internet interactivity is to let the people talk about what they have written, to discuss them, to keep them in the spotlight they built for themselves. There is no bigger institutional ego than a newspaper's. Presidents and popes get humbled more often than editors. Well, at least they used to.
No, guys, the best use of a wiki would have been to have the public create wikis to share their knowledge and viewpoints with you. I don't know what the big issues are in LA, but here in New York, it might work better just to open the gates to watch people create pro and con wikis on the Olympics and a new Manhattan stadium and 10 ways to improve the schools....
But even that is an exhibition of media ego. For the truth is, if people wanted to do that, they could go to any number of places and do it on their own. They don't need newspapers to give them technology. And they certainly do not need newspapers to tell them what to talk about.
If newspapers would just listen—and use this technology to do that—they'd find that the people don't want to talk about what the editors talk about. And they certainly don't want to talk about the editors.
Let's take it up a notch:
What this really points toward is the death of the editorial page. Why the hell do we need editorials anymore? In their day, they were the voice—the bully pulpit, as Rupert Murdoch says—of one person: the publisher, the guy who had the ultimate conch, the printing press. We, the people, never said we gave a damn what he thought, but we had no choice but to listen. And so over the years, he convinced himself that we cared. What if we don't?
The truth is that an editorial is just another blog post written by one person witih one viewpoint. Here's a case where you can't argue that it makes a difference having a journalism degree and a newsroom. Editorialists and columnists get to read the same stuff we do and they put on their pants and opinions just the way we do. So why should they have rights to the mountaintop? Who died and made them Moses? Let the people speak….
I couldn't agree more, nor could I have put it better—and I spent several years writing editorials for a major metropolitan newspaper, the New York Daily News. It was a great job and I'm glad I did it, but those days are soooo over.
If you haven't looked at my Commentaryessay on artblogging, let me point you to this paragraph:
When newspapers do become obsolete—which will happen sooner rather than later—it will be because their functions have been taken over by a variety of web-based media that can do them better. (Blogs, for example, are already superseding op-ed pages.) A few existing papers will rise to the challenge and transform themselves into online publications, reconceived in such a way as to take advantage of the unique properties of the web. Most, however, will not, since established institutions rarely if ever transform themselves, least of all in response to external threats to their survival. Instead, they are replaced by new institutions that spring up in response to those same threats, seeing them as opportunities for long-overdue change.
The Times just made my point for me—unintentionally.
• A fact checker for Vanity Fair sent me the following e-mail yesterday:
I can't get a line on this quote by H.L. Mencken, if indeed that's what it is. In referring to Dixie, Mencken apparently said it was "the hook-worm and incest belt of Anglo-Saxondom." Have you heard this? If not, do you have any suggestions on where next I should look?
As I mentioned last month, I've been getting queries like this ever since The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken was published. The funny thing is that the quotes in question always turn out to be phony, usually obviously so. This one looked phony, too, but it did have a slightly cracked ring of plausibility, as if it were an imperfectly remembered version of something Mencken had really said. What made me suspicious was that Mencken's verbal humor usually arises from elegant variation: I had no trouble imagining his having coined the phrase “hook-worm belt,” but I couldn't see him settling for so commonplace a word as incest. (His preferred euphemism for homosexuality, for instance, was “non-Euclidean sex.”)
I rolled up my sleeves and started Googling, and within a matter of seconds I'd found the answer, courtesy of Michael D. Goldhaber, a religion columnist for the Dallas Morning News:
The first use of "belt" to describe a region, identified by the Oxford English Dictionary, was by the poet Robert Southey in 1810: "A level belt of ice which bound…the waters of the sleeping Ocean round." By Mencken's time, the phrases Cotton Belt and Corn Belt were so widely spoken on this side of the Atlantic that he thought the locution was American.
"I began experimenting with various Belts in 1924 or thereabout," Mencken later wrote, "the Hookworm Belt, the Hog-and-Hominy Belt, the Total Immersion Belt, and so on." Also the "Mail-order Belt." "Finally," Mencken continued, "I settled on the Bible Belt."
Of course I knew he'd coined the phrase “Bible Belt,” but I didn't know that “Hookworm Belt” had been an earlier version of that indelible expression. And incest, as I'd suspected, had nothing to do with it.
Once a scholar, always a scholar….
• A reader writes:
On a topic related to a music recommendation you made to me, I bought Jim Hall and Ron Carter's Alone Together some time ago. It is as good as you said. Hall's lines are beautiful, flowing, yet genuinely inventive and surprising. However, the only reason I know that is that I sat myself down in a dark room and really listened carefully. I don't know what it is with me, but unless I concentrate, jazz guitar seems to reach into my brain and trip the "no critical thinking allowed" switch. I took a car trip the other day—pleasant country driving, usually ideal for listening carefully to music. I had on a mix of Hall, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell. Beautiful music, nice drive, no distractions. But I went for long stretches with no awareness of who was playing, no memory of what the songs were. Wouldn't happen to me with piano or sax players. With guitar it's just pure pleasure, non-cognitive. Don't understand it, really.
I'm fascinated by this problem, though I'm not entirely sure it is a problem. (What's wrong with pure pleasure?) Nevertheless, I thought it interesting enough to pass on to all of you out there in the 'sphere for further reflection.
By the way, Alone Together is one of the most beautiful records ever made. If you've never heard it, go here (or download it from iMusic). You won't be even slightly sorry.
"The hushed distillation of a Keaton silent draws you in in singular ways. I will never forget, after having seen each of his independent films over and over, the disconcerting thrill of hearing Buster talk. It was a 1937 short. He entered a room whistling; then he spoke. His voice scratched my ears. It was deeper, huskier—not at all the voice I had heard in my head, which, I realized, was modeled (in a cheerfully narcissistic way) after my own internal monologue. But that's the point, the solipsistic strength of silence—something takes place inside: we cast ourselves into the film, we make it ours. And as is often pointed out, that interior work is half the fun. Think of the 500 brides thundering after Keaton at the end of Seven Chances. As the poet Charles Simic put it, 'All of us who saw the movie can still hear the sound of their feet.'"
Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat
This week your faithful correspondent catches up with two overrated movies, each of them suffering from its own big, basic flaw that seems mainly attributable to nobody being bothered to flesh out (no pun intended) and execute (ditto) a decent half-idea.
First up is House of Sand and Fog, which has, of course, beautiful casting and a promising set-up: a fatal battle of wills between two essentially well-meaning but very desperate people. Then, alas, there's the wild card that is Ron Eldard's short-fused, xenophobic cop, with his totally inordinate degree of influence on the course of events. He seems to have stumbled in from a different film and genre altogether, or more likely to have been brought in as insurance against Kingsley and Connelly's characters bonding over their perfectly matched freakish intensity, working things out, and robbing the movie of the shock and gravitas it's so determined to deliver. Thanks to the cop's antics generally—and to the gun that hitches a ride into the climactic sequence with him specifically—the movie's ending, though obscenely sad, is too much of a freak accident, too detached from the principal characters' wills and actions, to count as tragedy. Without the cop this might have been a good movie, but who can tell?
Shaun of the Dead is a pretty good joke while it lasts, which it does for almost half its length, at which point it runs out of steam and turns into…a straight-faced retread of what it's supposed to be parodying. Whoops. The movie squeezed a little more goodwill out of me than it strictly should have, by virtue of the title character's sweetness. But I got a far bigger kick out of both the straight-ahead 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the inspired mess 28 Days Later—it's a better problem to suffer from too many ideas than from too few. There's some point to made here about the zombie-mall movie being too close to a joke in its pure state to be successfully parodied, but I lost a version of this post once already last night and, let's face it, it's way past my bedtime now. If this makes sense to you, though, tell me why in email. If it doesn't…oh, go ahead and email me too.
I had to file my Wall Street Journal drama column a day earlier than usual, and as a result I find I'm plumb tuckered and all written out. Sorry! I'll post more (and more originally) if and when inspiration strikes, but don't be surprised if I stand mute until Wednesday or Thursday. And yes, I know, I always end up posting three times as much as usual whenever I announce that I'm not planning to write anything, but this time I think I might mean it, maybe....
A few choice tidbits gleaned from the blogosphere:
• Mr. Alicublog rides my hobbyhorse, even though he mounts it from the other side:
The thing that makes a piece of work worthwhile is the mystery, but that doesn't mean an inspired fauve who doesn't know what he's doing can put it over without skills. (Usually.) The talented, trained people who get that thing on the stage or the page or the screen must be good with their tools, but they must also be working to realize the mystery, whether they would think to say so or, as with some hard-bitten old magicians, would rather portray themselves as clock-punchers trying to keep up their pay grade. You see the total absorption of great craftsmen at work: is it all for the money, do you think? Anyone who has worked on a production of any kind knows what it feels like when magic is being made—or failing to be made. Audiences know it too….
This is where ideologically-minded critics go wrong. They aren't at all interested in the mystery. When I read their poli-sci reviews, I can see that they're trying to assess the impact of the work in question—as if it were a social program or an economic stimulus package—on something they are pleased to call The Culture. In that sense, their work is indeed technical, and they often know their own grim metrics very well. But it has nothing to do with humility, or mystery, or art.
What he said.
• My favorite blogger-of-the-moment, Ms. in the wings, has posted “seventeen ways of looking for the beautiful.” Here are three:
1. As evident in the clean lines of modernist design or Renaissance counterpoint, I prefer the simple and austere to over-populated, messy masses.
2. Complexity is most intriguing when it juxtaposes the simple.
3. I prefer solving mysteries to being lectured by the head detective….
George Herbert perhaps no, John Donne yes
John Milton no, Andrew Marvell yes
John Dryden no, Aphra Behn yes
Alexander Pope yes, Jonathan Swift very definitely yes
William Wordsworth no, Lord Byron yes….
Correct on all counts, I'd say.
• Lileks and I are watching the same early-morning TV shows:
Last night on “What's My Line,” the guest was a young man who signed in as “Tom Eagleton.” Could it be? It was. His line was “District Attorney for St. Louis,” and he was 27. (The episode aired in 1957, I think.) Right from the Jack Webb line of lawmen, too—square head, flat hair, G-man stare, thin tie, a smile that was rare but genuine. He was followed by Mamie Van Doren, a breathy va-va-va-voomer who performed the odd facial alphabet of the 50s sex siren—the moue, the wink, the coquettish smile, the wide eyes, the teasing glance. And she ran through the sequence again and again, a performance completely disconnected from the questions. It was like watching a prototype Sexbot stuck in an programming loop. She really was from another era—a time when the sex stars had hips like oven doors, hair the color of astronaut suits, brains the size of ant thoraxes, and a life of giddy leisure that revolved around small, portable dogs, beefy Pepsodent morons, pink convertibles, and the purchase of ceramic cat statuary with long necks. A bratwurst to Paris Hilton's Slim Jim….
From Edmund White's recent New Yorkeressay
For most of my life I've been a shoulder to cry on, and all of that time I've wished I could do more to ease the pain of the women in my life. If I were straight, I could have married one of them. I would have known how to comfort her. I would have worked hard to provide her with the security and even the luxury she required. I would never have run off with another woman. I would have been as sensitive to her needs as a sister, as protective as a father. And I would always have told her where I was going and exactly when I'd be coming home. This was what distinguished me from the straight men I knew, who, it seemed, were united in their ability to treat women badly and then laugh it off….
In fact, it isn't quite so easy, but I do know what he means.
I've been reading about Richard Diebenkorn, whom I'm thinking of adding to the Teachout Museum, and last night I ran across this wonderful list that was found among his papers after he died in 1993. The spelling is exactly as in the original:
Notes to myself on beginning a painting
1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject—of any kind.
6. Somehow don't be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
7. Mistakes can't be erased but they move you from your present position.
I find that iTunes and writing coexist uneasily here on my laptop. I often use iTunes while I am writing to set a mood or to block out ambient sound and focus my mind. But just as often the music becomes a distraction. I listen too much, write too little, and unproductive hours slip away before I catch myself.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject of music and writing. How do you use music in your actual writing process, if at all? Do you listen to music while you write, or are you the type who requires absolute silence? Do you program your music to suit the subject you are writing about? More abstractly, do you think that the growing popularity of iTunes and digitized music generally somehow changes the writing atmosphere, i.e. now that our music resides on the same hard drive as our work, do we listen differently, does music penetrate the workspace more than it used to?
Having at one time spent the better part of a decade working in a cubicle at the New York Daily News, I no longer need silence in order to write—which isn't to say that I'd enjoy living across the street from a construction site! Fortunately, the windows of my apartment look down on a quiet, leafy side street, and the walls of the building are thick enough to screen out virtually all of the modest amounts of noise generated by my upstairs and downstairs neighbors.
As for music, I used to listen to it fairly regularly while writing, and on occasion I used it to set a mood. (I wrote parts of City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, for example, while listening to Aaron Copland's Letter from Home and Dave Frishberg's Sweet Kentucky Ham.) But I always had to be careful about what pieces I chose, and I learned over time that there were certain kinds of music that interfered with the writing of first drafts. Songs sung in English tended to throw me off the track, as did any recording conducted by Arturo Toscanini, whose interpretations of the classics were simply too intense for me to relegate to the background of my consciousness.
Perhaps my powers of concentration have been diminished by advancing age, or maybe I've simply become more sensitive to the emotion-evoking power of music. (I cry more easily now than I did a decade ago.) Whatever the reason, I now find music more distracting than I used to, and I no longer listen to any kind of music while working on first drafts. Editing is different, and unless I'm doing battle with a tight deadline, in which case I prefer to struggle in silence, I sometimes listen to music when I'm polishing a piece, though I don't really hear it. Sometimes I'll put on a symphony or concerto, start chipping away at an unpolished draft, and emerge from a deep trough of concentration to realize—always with surprise—that the piece of music to which I was “listening” is almost over.
I suspect that my correspondent is right to think that the increased availability of digitized music is changing the atmosphere of the workplace, but I see iTunes less as a unique and separate source of distraction than as one of the myriad ways in which Web-enabled computers are capable of diverting us from the task at hand, whatever it may be. I'm a chronic procrastinator—if it weren't for deadlines, I wouldn't get anything done—and my iBook places an infinite number of distractions at my fingertips. I'm far more likely to waste time by surfing the Web than by playing with iTunes, though, possibly because it's easier for me to pretend that I'm searching for some fact that's relevant to the task at hand.
More generally, I've come to look upon my DSL-equipped iBook as an enemy of leisure, a malevolent magnet that pulls me out of the Teachout Museum and seduces me into working when I ought to be playing. It is this realization that finally taught me a lesson the rest of the world figured out long ago, which is that it is good to get out of town from time to time. The great danger of the digital workplace, of course, is that you can take it wherever you go, which is why I never, ever take my computer with me to the secure undisclosed location where I sit by the Hudson River and watch the sun set, nor do I bring it along when I review out-of-town plays. That way lies…well, maybe not madness, but definitely obsession. I may be a workaholic, but at least I'm not a degenerate workaholic.
The New York Public Library has extended its current exhibition of prints and gouaches by Milton Avery through Saturday. Here's what I wrote about it last month in the Washington Post:
For pure charm, it'd be hard to top the Milton Avery exhibition…at the main branch of the New York Public Library, a pleasingly compact affair that goes by the mile-long name of "The Flying Pig and Other Winged Creatures: An Exhibition of the Artist's Illustrations and Prints." Fifty-nine years ago, Avery accepted an invitation to illustrate a children's book written by a friend and called "The Flying Pig." The book was scrapped on account of excessive expense (to reproduce Avery's paintings in color would have cost too much in the days of post-World War II inflation), and this is the first time the illustrations have been shown in public. Not surprisingly, they're just as adorable as you'd expect—fancifully composed and joyously colored, very much in the Avery manner. Hung alongside them are a dozen of the artist's finest drypoints and woodcuts, including "Self-Portrait," "March at a Table," "Night Nude" and "Dancer." If you've never seen any of Avery's prints, this is an excellent place to start.
For more information (including online images of the works in the show), go here.
Ann Althouse is soliciting suggestions of the best movies set in Paris. Terry will have some thoughts, no doubt. My own tastes lean to Irma Vep and Celine et Julie vont en bateau, which takes place half in Paris and half in a Henry James story, and whose first scene makes fantastic use of the Montmartre stairs (Quicktime required).
"He would arrive for work in the morning and say, 'What are the lyrics?' That's what he called his lines, his dialogue. He hadn't gotten around to looking at the script yet, he'd say. 'Somebody give me the lyrics.' And I thought that was the secret to doing the lines like he did them. You don't learn them in advance. 'I'll go in each morning and I'll learn them in makeup.' Oh, dear, was I wrong. I was stumbling over my first line. And he knew the script backward and forward. It was part of his act...'What are my lyrics?'"
Jane Greer (quoted in Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care")
The Wall Street Journal sent me to Washington a couple of weeks ago to check out the Kennedy Center’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Mark Lamos and starring Mary Stuart Masterton, Jeremy Davidson, George Grizzard, and Dana Ivey as, respectively, Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy and Big Mama. My review appears in this morning’s paper, and it’s broadly similar to what I thought of last year’s Broadway revival: I didn’t like the youngsters, but the old hands knocked me out. As for the play itself, well, let’s just say eeuuww:
Mind you, I don’t much care for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which I dismissed in my review of the Broadway revival as "a flabby, pseudo-poetic period piece that leaves you wondering what all the shouting is about—and there’s a whole lot of shouting going on." For that matter, I don’t much care for Tennessee Williams in general, most of whose plays seem to me to be peopled by a peculiar race of sentimental, logorrheic mutants bearing no obvious resemblance to human beings. As far as I’m concerned, Mary McCarthy nailed it in a single sentence of her 1948 review of "A Streetcar Named Desire": "Dr. Kinsey would be interested in a semi-skilled male who spoke of the four-letter act as ‘getting those colored lights going.’"
Big Daddy is no more convincing than Stanley Kowalski, least of all in the second-act speech in which he claims to sympathize with Brick’s sexual confusion: "One thing you can grow on a big place more important than cotton!—is tolerance!—I grown it." Show me a plantation owner of his vintage who was capable of uttering those words, or anything remotely resembling them, and I’ll eat a whole plateful of raw cotton drenched in molasses….
Meanwhile, back on Broadway, I paid a visit to Hairspray, which has a new pair of leads:
I confess to still being left cold as a Popsicle by its noisy blend of rock 'n' roll pastiche and what can only be called civil-rights kitsch. On the other hand, Jack O'Brien's staging and Jerry Mitchell's choreography are energetic and ingenious, and the current cast continues to deliver the goods, ramming "Hairspray"'s tedious little commercials for tolerance down your throat with all the gusto of a Disney cartoon. If that warms your cockles, rest assured that the Quality Control Department at the Neil Simon Theatre remains on the job.
No link, so either buy a paper or—better yet—subscribe to The Wall Street Journal Online, which is so convenient (and costs so much less) that I actually let my dead-tree subscription lapse and now read the Journal on my iBook each morning. In case you haven't heard, there’s far more to the Journal than money and me. It also publishes top-notch arts criticism, daily book reviews, and the Friday Weekend Journal section in which my drama reviews appear. To subscribe, go here.
As the entire book-reviewing world knows by now, Michiko Kakutani’s evisceration of Bill Clinton’s My Life in the daily New York Times has been followed by Larry McMurtry’s canonization of same in the Times Book Review.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some politically oriented folks who don’t seem to understand the mechanics of the book-review biz have jumped to the conclusion
that Review B was in some way intended as penance for Review A. "About Last Night" has and will have no official opinion on the literary merits of My Life, or of the two reviews published in the Times—we don’t do politics here—but speaking as an old book-reviewing hand, I can assure you from a safe distance that it couldn’t possibly have happened that way. Both reviews would have been assigned separately and before the fact, and their dates of publication were clearly determined by the date of publication of My Life, not by any corporate desire on the part of the Times to kiss up to said book’s author. (As for the early posting of McMurtry's review on the Times's Web site, I'd have done exactly the same thing if I'd been in charge. The Clinton book is news, and news is a dish that tastes best when served piping hot.)
Regarding the mutually contradictory contents of the two reviews, I’d say they bespeak a pretty impressive degree of book-related vitality on the part of the New York Times. Most American newspapers, after all, don’t review books even once, much less twice. Like it or not, My Life is by definition an important book, and the Times has pitched two critical change-ups on it in the course of a single week. First came a savage pan by one of the paper’s in-house critics, followed by a fellatial rave from an outsider writing in its weekly book-review supplement—a publication run, I might add, by an editor
whose alleged right-wing sympathies have been the subject of considerable discussion in the literary sector of the blogosphere. Whatever else those reviews were, they definitely weren't predictable.
All in all, I’d say the Times just had itself a pretty good week, bookwise.
UPDATE: The third link above is to Jonah Goldberg’s comments at "The Corner," National Review’s on-line site. Jonah responds
Terry knows more -- much more -- about such things than I do and I defer to him for the most part. That said, it doesn't quite wash that the reviews are unrelated in anyway since McMurtry makes pretty much a direct reference to the first Times review in his attempt to debunk the notion that Clinton's book isn't better than Grant's autobiography. Maybe the Times Sunday Book Review supplement editor, Sam Tanenhaus, is off the hook on the conspiracy charge, but McMurtry's review still seems like a rushed rescue mission for a doomed book than an intellectually honest or even serious effort….
Quite so—McMurtry’s review does make "blind" reference to Kakutani’s mention of Grant’s Personal Memoirs—but given the short time frame, I assume the reference was either inserted in the course of editing in order to make the review more timely, or the whole review was delivered by McMurtry at the last possible minute. The latter wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I suppose I shouldn’t admit this in public, but it’s not my habit to write most of my reviews more than a day or so prior to their deadlines, if that much!
MORE: A reader writes:
I liked your analysis of the independence of McMurtry's review. I'm not sure if McMurtry was referring exclusively to the original Times review by referencing comparisons to Grant's memoirs, however. A Google news search shows many many hits for articles containing both Clinton and Ulysses. This one yields over 500 hits. The original Times review may have provoked all that came afterwards, but does it look to you as if there was a subsequent tsunami which was worth addressing?
A good question, to which I have no answer. Still, it provides additional circumstantial evidence that McMurtry was writing off his own bat, not somebody else’s.
My friends all take vacations, and swear by them. I don’t, and after due consideration I’ve decided to blame this idiosyncrasy on my late father, who planned the family vacations of my youth on the mistaken assumption that the point of going somewhere is to do something. An anxious, restless man, he was never much good at doing nothing, whereas it seemed self-evident to me from childhood onward that the whole point of taking a vacation was to do whatever you wanted—including nothing—whenever you wanted.
As usual with small-town parents, his views prevailed, and so our vacations were action-packed. Even when we bought a mobile home on Kentucky Lake and started spending summer weekends there, he was all but incapable of simply taking it easy. Instead, he preferred to immerse himself (and us) in elaborate home-improvement projects, and when he couldn’t come up with anything else to do, he’d turn a hose on the white gravel with which he’d landscaped the lot and wash the dirt off it. It was at that point that I started thinking up plausible-sounding reasons to spend my weekends home alone, reading.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I never got into the habit of taking vacations on my own after I grew up. By then I was working for a newspaper in New York, halfway across the country from my parents, and whenever I got more than a few days off I'd usually fly home to see them. I thought my schedule would become more flexible when I became a freelancer, but the opposite happened—I found myself covering performances the whole year round—and the notion that I might want to spend a week or two going somewhere purely for my pleasure simply never occurred to me. Thus it was that I became obsessive about work, and thus it was that I eventually put myself in the hands of a psychotherapist who told me, among many other things, that I needed to start taking vacations from time to time.
At her increasingly firm urging, I took my first one in nearly twenty years, but it ended up being an art lover’s rendering of one of my father’s holidays-on-a-treadmill. I went to Isle au Haut, a Maine island portrayed by Fairfield Porter in a 1975 lithograph that hangs on my wall, visiting a half-dozen art museums along the way and writing an article about the trip for The Wall Street Journal immediately upon my return. To be sure, it was a medium step in the right direction, and I enjoyed myself hugely, but a busman’s holiday wasn’t quite what the doctor thought she'd ordered, so she told me to take two or three days off this time around and spend them on an uncomplicated trip to nowhere in particular.
Not long after receiving my new set of marching orders, I fell ill. Finding myself with time on my hands, I spent some of it surfing the Web for travel-related ideas. Along the way I read about a village on the Hudson River called Cold Spring. I liked the sound of it, and I also liked the fact that I could get there by train (I don’t own a car and don’t like to fly). Further inquiry revealed that Cold Spring was the home of the Hudson House Inn, a riverfront inn built in 1832 and located a block from the train station. I looked at my calendar and saw a three-day hole in June, so I called the inn on the spur of the moment, booked a room, and spent the next three weeks wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Cold Spring, it seems, is known for its antique shops, but not much else. While the surrounding area contains countless toothsome-sounding tourist attractions, you can’t get to any of them without a car. For better or worse, I’d planned a trip that would have driven my poor father howling mad: three days’ worth of nothing to do. What effect would it have on his oldest son?
When the appointed day came, I packed an overnight bag, turned off my computer and telephone, caught a cab to Grand Central Station, and boarded a Hudson Line train for Cold Spring. It was hot and rainy in Manhattan and warm and noisy on the train, and I squirmed uncomfortably as I watched the river roll by outside my window, feeling more than a little bit nervous at the thought of all that time on my hands. An hour and ten minutes later, the train pulled into the Cold Spring station. I was the only passenger who got off. I couldn’t see the village through the trees and wasn’t sure what to do next, so I called the inn on my cell phone and asked for directions. Three minutes later, I was standing in front of the Hudson House Inn, looking across the street at the broad, tree-lined river and listening to birds chirping away just over my head. On the far shore was Storm King Mountain, shrouded in the light gray mist of a muggy June afternoon. For no reason at all, my eyes filled with tears.
I checked in—I was the only guest—and took a shower and a nap. Then I went out again and planted myself on a rough-hewn park bench a stone’s throw from the water. Behind me was the inn, before me the mountain, beside me a neatly painted hexagonal bandstand whose cornerstone proclaimed it to have been built in 1929, three years after my father was born. A pier lined with old-fashioned streetlights, all but deserted on that quiet Tuesday afternoon, jutted out into the river. I sat for a half-hour and watched the freight trains rumble down the tracks at the foot of the mountain. A white sailboat glided by in the warm orange sunlight. Some wry impulse had led me to tuck a copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson in my shoulder bag, but I didn’t feel like reading, or using my cell phone to check my messages, or doing anything other than sitting on the bench, gazing in silence at the river and the mountain and the summer sun.
An hour or so later, I crossed the tracks and climbed the hill to the Upper Village. I strolled up one side of Main Street and down the other, peering in the windows of the antique stores and restaurants. It was time to eat, so I chose a pleasant-looking grill, ordered crabcakes, and turned my attention to the bookshelf by my table. It was filled with the dusty volumes that interior decorators buy by the foot, and as I waited for my dinner, I looked at their frayed spines, charmed and a little surprised by what I found:
Mountainmen Crafts and Skills Elizabeth Goudge, The Child from the Sea Sibylle Bedford, Jigsaw The Valley of Silence: Catholic Thought in Contemporary Poland Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye If I Live to Be 100…: Congregate Housing for Later Life Rock Hudson: His Story Agatha Christie, Curtain Ralph Bellamy, When the Smoke Hits the Fan Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane Hamilton Basso, The View from Pompey’s Head John D. Macdonald, The Empty Copper Sky Penelope Ashe, Naked Came the Stranger Kahlil Gibran, The Forerunner Richard Wilbur, New and Selected Poems
I pulled New and Selected Poems off the shelf and opened it at random. My eye fell on this couplet: When I must come to you, O my God, I pray/It be some dusty-roaded holiday. Spurred by the coincidence, I took out my appointment book and started scribbling down the titles of the other books, thinking that it might be amusing to write a little essay about them. No sooner did I enter the last title, though, than my crabcakes arrived, and they turned out to be so tasty that all the clever thoughts I’d been thinking promptly fell out of my mind, never to be thought again.
After dinner I went down the hill to the water’s edge and sat on the same park bench I’d occupied earlier. This time I saw a brass plaque on the back:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
ADELAIDE R. SMITH
"WE COULDN’T HAVE A MORE PERFECT DAY"
Once again the writerly wheels in my head started turning. Who was Adelaide R. Smith? Had this been her preferred stopping place? How had what I took to be her favorite saying come to be inscribed on a plaque and bolted to a park bench by the Hudson River? Interesting questions, to be sure, but I lost interest in the answers when I saw that the sun was about to slip behind Storm King Mountain. I let it burn blue-green spots into my eyes as it slid down the evening sky, and no sooner had it vanished than the streetlights blinked on one by one. A police car rolled up to the bandstand, then cruised away. The birds were still singing. I left my bench and returned to the inn. My room was small, simple, and comfortable, and I curled up in bed with Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, which Our Girl in Chicago had assured me would be the perfect book for a vacation (she was right), and read myself to sleep.
I could tell you everything I did the following day, but it wouldn’t sound much different than what I'd done the day before: I sat by the river, looked in store windows, searched out meals, took an afternoon nap, read when I felt like it, and listened to the birds. At one point I started counting the number of cars in the freight train on the far shore of the Hudson, and when I got to 118 it occurred to me that I hadn’t done anything like that since I was a little boy. Minutes and hours dissolved without my noticing, and once more I watched the sun set, returned to my room, and marveled at how unhesitatingly I had taken to having nothing to do.
It occurs to me that middle age consists in part of learning all the obvious things you either ignored or dismissed out of hand when you were younger and more knowing. In my case, one of them is that if you want to unwind, it’s a good idea to get out of town. By removing myself from the scenes of my professional excesses—the desk, the computer, the city itself—I had catapulted myself out of my confining routine. Instead of reconstituting it in Cold Spring, I happily frittered away the better part of two whole days without a second thought. Anywhere you go, there you are: so runs a favorite saying of mine, yet in my case it turned out to be not so true as I’d always thought. Yes, I was still me, but a slightly different me, one unexpectedly content to be idle. Perhaps I had rediscovered a part of me that my father had buried under the weight of his own obsessions. Perhaps I had simply figured out for myself what my friends always knew, which is that to do and to be are not necessarily the same thing, at least not when you’re sitting by the Hudson River, watching the sun set behind a green-topped mountain.
Of course such moments are not meant to last. Their evanescence is part of their charm. I checked my voice mail after breakfast the next morning and found an urgent plea from a neighbor in distress, the kind of help-me-Obi-Wan-Kenobi-you’re-my-only-hope summons to which the one decent reply is in the affirmative. The trains from Cold Spring to New York City leave two minutes before the hour, so I checked out a bit earlier than I’d planned, spent a half-hour sitting by the Hudson, then trudged up the hill to the station. As if to emphasize that my brief idyll was over, my car was full of shrieking teenage girls en route to Manhattan, there to spend the day shopping, and I listened to their prattle all the way back to Grand Central Station. Cold Spring seemed a thousand miles away.
Yet my parting words to the friendly young woman at the front desk of the Hudson House Inn were still fresh in my memory. "I know you had a good time," she said with a smile, to which I replied, "I sure did, and I mean to come back soon." Who knew that a three-day trip to nowhere in particular could be so full of delight? I didn’t—but I do now.
• Maud has a short story, "Post-Extraction," up at the newish literary magazine Swink. In news that will surprise nobody, it's really, really good. How smart and nice of them to make it freely available!
• Part of Maud's story is about on-line gaming. A little while back, a thoroughly fascinating essay in The Walrus looked at the real-world economics of on-line fantasy worlds. Economist Edward Castronova stumbled on these games a few years ago and what he discovered there revived a flagging academic career:
EverQuest had its own economy, a bustling trade in virtual goods. Players generate goods as they play, often by killing creatures for their treasure and trading it. The longer they play, the more powerful they get—but everyone starts the game at Level 1, barely strong enough to kill rats or bunnies and harvest their fur. Castronova would sell his fur to other characters who'd pay him with "platinum pieces," the artificial currency inside the game. It was a tough slog, so he was always stunned by the opulence of the richest players. EverQuest had been launched in 1999, and some veteran players now owned entire castles filled with treasures from their quests.
Things got even more interesting when Castronova learned about the "player auctions." EverQuest players would sometimes tire of the game, and decide to sell off their characters or virtual possessions at an on-line auction site such as eBay. When Castronova checked the auction sites, he saw that a Belt of the Great Turtle or a Robe of Primordial Waters might fetch forty dollars; powerful characters would go for several hundred or more. And sometimes people would sell off 500,000-fold bags of platinum pieces for as much as $1,000.
As Castronova stared at the auction listings, he recognized with a shock what he was looking at. It was a form of currency trading. Each item had a value in virtual "platinum pieces"; when it was sold on eBay, someone was paying cold hard American cash for it. That meant the platinum piece was worth something in real currency. EverQuest's economy actually had real-world value.
He began calculating frantically. He gathered data on 616 auctions, observing how much each item sold for in U.S. dollars. When he averaged the results, he was stunned to discover that the EverQuest platinum piece was worth about one cent U.S.—higher than the Japanese yen or the Italian lira. With that information, he could figure out how fast the EverQuest economy was growing. Since players were killing monsters or skinning bunnies every day, they were, in effect, creating wealth. Crunching more numbers, Castronova found that the average player was generating 319 platinum pieces each hour he or she was in the game—the equivalent of $3.42 (U.S.) per hour. "That's higher than the minimum wage in most countries," he marvelled.
Then he performed one final analysis: The Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned out to be $2,266 U.S. per capita. By World Bank rankings, that made EverQuest richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia.
It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world. And it didn't even exist.
• I like James Lilek's affectionate tribute to writers who smoke. Or is it smokers who write? In any case, Christopher Hitchens' recent slice-and-dice jobs on Michael Moore and Ronald Reagan are the occasion for a description I know will have certain FOOGICs nodding their heads in self-recognition:
I am reasonably sure he wrote both pieces in the same state of furious irritated inebriation, and both strike me as two-pack essays. Forty cigarettes, minimum. Of course, you don’t know if he’s one of those light-‘em-and-leave’-em writers who fire up a Winston, set it aside, pound furiously for four minutes, take that last toxic plastic-tasting drag that makes you think I hate cigarettes for a fleeing second, or whether he parks the butt in the corner of his mouth and smokes as he writes, getting ashes all over the place. I suspect the latter. I suspect he is one of those writers who doesn’t empty the ashtray until the piece is done, and occasionally will use the butt to clear away some empty real estate in the ashtray so the cigarette doesn’t relight the discarded filters.
If he’s a filter man. Probably so. Otherwise he’d have to shave his tongue with a straight edge every morning. Steady, lad. Steady. Hold the wrist with the other hand if you have to. Ah, to hell with it.
• Colby is being blistering and funny, what else is new, on Road to Perdition and some other movies:
Tom Hanks plays a button man whose murdering ways get his wife and children (I forget exactly how many) killed, but who is healed and redeemed and whatnot as he flees his betrayers with his last surviving brat in tow. The whole thing's a very nice opportunity for the old man and the boy to get to know each other, and even to engage in a little comic business—at Al Capone's expense, no less! Too bad the pair chose to flee towards the town with a name ripped from the pages of A Child's Garden of Lameass Foreshadowing. Sam Mendes seems to have arrived just in time to answer America's undiscovered need for a stupid, gauche version of John Sayles.
In related news, I'd still like the two hours I spent watching American Beauty back. And as long as we're all stomping on Mendes, I wonder what Terry's reaction will be when he hears that the man's next project is a film version of Sweeney Todd? Nothing involving a straight razor, I hope.
Regarding Colby's assessment of School of Rock, however, I'll grant him "piffle," but "noxious piffle"? Isn't that almost a contradiction in terms? And Colby, why do you hate kids?
• Finally, Alex Ross's blog is going like gangbusters. Here he shares his used-book finds, including a copy of Lord Jim inscribed "Texas School Book Depository, 1963." A couple of weeks ago he had a brief appreciation of music used in The Sopranos that I've been meaning to flag. Bookmark him.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, June 23, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Defending Henry's life
Colm Toibin's The Master must be one of the most widely discussed books of June. The reviews are popping up like dandelions. I haven't read the book yet, but I'm finding the reviews fascinating. Everyone admires it, most critics without reservation, but this week a few interesting exceptions have surfaced. In this week's New York Times Book Review, Daniel Mendelsohn agrees with other reviewers about the novel's stylistic beauty and imaginative power:
[W]hile [Toibin's] dazzling embedding of bona fide Jamesian nuggets throughout his narrative will delight James scholars, they never obtrude into the smooth and elegant flow of the novel's movement.
But he goes on to wonder whether the novelist underestimates how much authentic "living" James did. He questions an overly easy but commonly held idea about James: that he sacrificed "living" for his art. According to Mendelsohn, Toibin goes even further, suggesting that, like an "artistic vampire living off the lifeblood of his innocent and truly suffering victims," James leeched off of the lives of others. Mendelsohn thinks this an unfair assessment, and calls into question the assumptions on which it rests: a narrow understanding of "life" and a dubious, simplistic opposition of it with "art." He raises these questions eloquently and even passionately:
''The Master'' is, of course, a novel, and Toibin isn't bound by the facts; but the way that he's loaded the dice against James here suggests what is, to my mind, a larger failure of sympathy.
This is strange, because sympathy is something Toibin the critic, the chronicler of gay lives, has thought a great deal about. ''The gay past is not pure,'' he writes in ''Love in a Dark Time,'' referring to the way in which the homosexuals of an earlier generation were forced to lead double, lying lives. ''It is duplicitous and slippery, and it requires a great deal of sympathy and understanding.'' But ''The Master,'' Toibin's fifth novel, made me wonder whether he fully understands only a certain kind of suffering, and has only a certain kind of sympathy. For Oscar Wilde, with his extravagant public sufferings and real physical abasement, for the scholar F. O. Matthiessen, with his tortured closetedness and eventual suicide, Toibin—who has acknowledged what he feels is the ''abiding fascination of sadness . . . and, indeed, tragedy''—clearly has great sympathy in his essays. And it is for this 19th-century, operatic sympathy that he has sympathy in the new novel, too: Minny and Constance and Alice James, with their Pucciniesque sufferings, their illnesses, premature death and suicide.
But it may be that Toibin's very nature, his own fascination with high tragedy and his admirably fierce moral objection to the kind of secretiveness and closetedness that once ravaged him, as it did so many of us, makes him unable to get to the deep opaque heart of Henry James—the elusive and frustrating thing that got him going about James in the first place. It's possible that James just didn't suffer in the way Toibin understands suffering. From everything we know, he was indeed quite a happy person (by his own standards, rather than ours) for most of his life—productive, sociable, well loved and remarkably kind. And, of course, a very great artist for whom art was the highest satisfaction. Yet Toibin never explores what it might feel like to be satisfied by art alone in the way that most of us want to be satisfied by love and sex; he just keeps showing you the damage that art causes without really suggesting what its compensatory value might be—for James or, indeed, for us. There is an early story of James's in which a young American asks himself whether ''it is better to cultivate an art than to cultivate a passion''; for James in real life, at least, it seems clear what the answer was—just as it seems clear what Toibin thinks, too. The last page of ''The Master'' provides one final memory, one final illumination of why James was ''cold,'' why for him there was a kind of emotion in art that nothing in ''life'' could match. A closing image of the lone artist, anxiously culling moments from life to be preserved in art, is meant, I suspect, to come off as melancholy, if not tragic.
But what if James wasn't tragic? That a life without passion as we think of it could still be a fulfilled life is one paradox that Toibin's artful, moving and very beautiful novel doesn't seem to have considered; and so he does not dramatize it because it isn't clear to him. What we get in ''The Master'' is, instead, the intricate and wrenching drama of James's ''victims.'' The Master himself remains, ultimately, unknowable—a problem that perhaps no artist could ever solve.
In a perfect world we'd get more book reviews like this one: judicious, eloquent, and animated by a compelling Big Idea.
In this week's New Yorker, John Updike has the same Idea:
We sorely miss in the novel, and find abundantly in the biographies, the sound of James’s voice, as it is heard in [Leon] Edel’s and [Fred] Kaplan’s frequent quotation of onrolling sentences and stabbing, mischievous phrases culled from his letters. Tóibín takes the divulgences and descriptions in these letters, and in those of James’s correspondents, and turns them into a curious silent movie.
He does not entertain the possibility that James felt no need to be outed. The nineteenth century, hospitable to bachelor uncles and celibate scholar-saints, did not necessarily subscribe to the extremely high value the twentieth century assigned sex and its associated concept of "love." The, to our sense, grotesque innocence of Ruskin did not prevent him from being a great aesthetic theorist; John Singer Sargent’s apparent lack of a love life did not annul his art. A James contemporary as vital and assertive and pleased with himself as George Bernard Shaw was relieved of his virginity only by a forceful intervention from the widow Jenny Patterson on his twenty-ninth birthday. Sex was not yet considered the only game to be played.
Whatever you think of James's style—and I know that plenty of smart people go into sneezing fits when they even get into the same room with his books—I find it hard to believe that someone could read his work and think of his as a sheltered existence. The inner lives of so many different kinds of people are animated there: men, women, children, rich, poor, middle-class, bright, dim, kind, wicked, and so on. This curiosity, let alone his insight, didn't come from simply sitting back and coldly observing life. James's interest in other people was unbounded. He wrote thousands of letters to scores of correspondents, had friends all over Europe and America, and enjoyed many intimate, if not romantic, relationships. As Mendelsohn is at pains to establish, he was "productive, sociable, well loved and remarkably kind." It's interesting that this side of James seems to get a fairer shake from his biographers than from a biographical novelist. A little anxiety at work, maybe?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, June 23, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
OGIC: Lost world
Last fall I pulled Mary McCarthy's Intellectual Memoirs off the shelf for the first time in years and found two fifty-dollar bills tucked inside. Nice, but alarming enough that I can now confidently say—after an evening of on-the-ground investigation—that there is not another red cent hidden in any book in my apartment. This is not my usual notion of a savings account—my money didn't earn a lot of interest there, needless to say—and I'm going to be very careful next time I take a box of books to the local bookstore.
A piece in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) catalogs some of the amazing items discovered in used books at New York's Strand and a few other bookstores. These items include an activist's rap sheet; sketches by Bosch, Michelangelo, and the unidentified; birth certificates; dirty pictures; and, natch, love letters. Some of the gaudier finds:
The Strand did buy a $15 doodled-over book of drawings by the Renaissance artist Ucello. The doodler was Salvador Dali. Fred Bass, the Strand's owner, once opened a book titled "The Bill of Rights" to find it was hollowed out. The bottom of the inside was signed, "Boo! Abbie Hoffman." Mr. Bass says he learned later from Mr. Hoffman that he had hidden a tape recorder in there during the Chicago Seven trial.
Mining the dusty stacks, browsers can strike gold too: a signed photo of Bette Davis; a dried four-leaf clover; a ripped-out flyleaf from a first edition with a poem scrawled on it: "A plague upon / and to perdition / the Hun who mars / a first edition..."
Harvey Frank wasn't pleased, though, to learn that a personal note he wrote had landed in a customer's hands at the Strand. Mr. Frank had slipped it into a copy of his own self-published book of poetry, "My Reservoir of Dreams," before sending it to WOR Radio host Joan Hamburg. "I thought I would bring her into my life," says Mr. Frank, who is 80. Ms. Hamburg remembers the book, vaguely. "I was sort of touched," she says. "I put it on my desk. Or somewhere." She says she has no idea how it ended up in a used-book bin.
Ouch, and déjŕ vu. I live in a university neighborhood where everyone is constantly publishing books and giving them to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. You might think that if you lived in such a place you would have the tact to sell your books out of state, or at least in a different part of town. But it's relatively common to turn up a volume at Powell's by a local author that has been warmly inscribed to someone residing in the same eight-by-eight-block area who apparently thanked the giver, turned around, walked up the street, and converted the book into cold, hard cash—or even (shudder) credit towards other books. This seems to me to take a really steely grade of shamelessness (with a dash, in some cases, of professional envy).
Probably the best bonus material I've ever found in a used book were an eloquent malcontent's extensive pencil annotations in a hardcover copy of Pauline Kael's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The penciler didn't often agree with Kael but found her reviews provocative, to say the least. This wonderful artifact has since slipped away. I suspect I left it at an ex-boyfriend's. If I were him, I wouldn't have given it back either. But I am enjoying his sumptuous, blocklike 1939 Petit Larousse Illustré, so there. (Pseudonyms are so liberating.)
Too impatient for stumbling on this stuff? You can always check out the pre-found objects at Found Magazine. I've always liked the concept of this magazine, but I must admit that today I'm feeling newly protective of the flotsam they collect and publish. Not that the supply could ever be depleted, but the thought of anything like a central depository for it is, I suddenly see, actually very depressing.
"Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions"
Raise your hand if eww. The grammatical errors and infelicities found by Louis Menand in the punctuation guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves are enough to make this editor's hair stand on end. Thanks anyway, Lynne Truss, but I'll stick with the foundational texts in "the Edward Gorey school of grammar" (as one Amazon reviewer nicely puts it), Karen Elizabeth Gordon's Deluxe Transitive Vampire and New Well-Tempered Sentence. They're trustworthy and titillating—what more could you want in a grammar guide?
I returned from the barber seconds ago and am now about to go up the spout, but I just received this e-mail from a reader apropos of the Evelyn Waugh quotation-from-memory I posted at the end of yesterday's Consumables, and wanted to pass it on to you before I retire to my Secure Undisclosed Location:
I may be late on this, but here's the passage in Evelyn Waugh's diaries that you asked about on your blog the other day. It's the entry for Sunday 17 November 1946 (p. 663 in the English edition). A houseguest had departed, and Waugh wrote, "What an enormous, uncovenanted blessing to have kept Henry James for middle age and to turn, as the door shuts behind the departing guest, to a first reading of 'Portrait of a Lady.' "
I'm here on a visit, but no more than that. First thing Tuesday morning I remove myself to an Undisclosed Location for three days of rest and relaxation. I won't be attending any performances of anything whatsoever, except maybe dinner. I'm not bringing my iBook, either, so don't ask me.
I plan to be back and blogging on Friday, but in the meantime I've left behind a few postings to keep you warm (see below), and I've also updated the Top Fives in the right-hand column. Take a look.
I now return you to the capable hands of Our Girl in Chicago, who kept the home fires burning very nicely last week. Give her a kiss for me.
Lots and lots has happened since last we met, some of it in New York and some of it elsewhere.
• I’ll start by bragging. Harcourt e-mailed me the layout for All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, my next book, and I’m still bedazzled. The design and typography couldn’t be more handsome. Having already seen the dust jacket, my guess is that the finished product is going to be at least as good-looking as the Teachout Reader, if I do say so myself.
• On Wednesday and Thursday I was in Washington, D.C., where I saw Mark Lamos’ revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Kennedy Center. (That’s for The Wall Street Journal, so I’ll keep my opinions on ice for the present.)
• In addition, I watched a performance by William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, also at the Kennedy Center. Somewhat to my surprise, I very much liked the last piece on the bill, a dance called One Flat Thing, reproduced in which the members of the company dragged twenty metal tables downstage, lined them up in five rows, and danced on top of, underneath, and in between them, accompanied by the electronic music of Thom Willems. Yes, it’s a gimmick, but a brilliant one, rather like the strobe lights in David Parsons’ Caught, and Dana Caspersen’s program note summed up the results aptly, if a bit breathlessly:
Twenty tables, like jagged rafts of ice, fly forward and become the surface, the underground and the sky inhabited byh a ferocious flight of dancers. A pack of bodies raging with alacrity, whipping razor-like in perilous weaves, in a hurtling intelligence. The music of Thom Willems begins quietly and then blows up into a gale, hurling the dancers toward the end, their bodies howling in a voracious, detailed storm.
As you probably know, Ballett Frankfurt is disbanding any moment now, but Forsythe is starting up a new company, and I trust that One Flat Thing, reproduced will figure prominently in its repertory. I’ve never been a great fan of Forsythe's work, but this dance was terrific, and I want to see it again.
• Earlier that same day I paid a quick visit to the National Gallery. I looked atAmerican Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection, which contains two exquisite "minute" sketches by John Marin and a wonderful trompe l'oeil still life by John Peto, one of my favorite nineteenth-century American painters, and Drawings of Jim Dine, which contains, among other things, a profile drawing of a woman smoking a cigarette that I would have been more than happy to hang in the Teachout Museum.
• I took the train back to New York on Friday to hear Joŕo Gilberto give a solo concert at Carnegie Hall (it was part of the ongoing JVC Jazz Festival). Despite his usual mid-concert fit over the sound system, Gilberto sang mesmerizingly well, exhaling each song as if it were a cloud of cool mist, accompanied only by his spare acoustic guitar. Plenty of musicians were on hand, and the ones I ran into afterward were all hugging themselves with pleasure. Me, too.
If you weren’t lucky enough to be there, you can hear most of the songs Gilberto sang on In Tokyo, his just-released live CD. Mmmmm.
• Over the weekend, I saw two musicals. Not only did I look in on the current cast of Hairspray, now playing ad infinitum at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, but I also traveled to New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse to catch a revival of Guys and Dolls featuring Karen Ziemba as Miss Adelaide. Both shows will likely be fodder for one or more of my Wall Street Journal theater columns, so keep an eye peeled.
• Before, during, and after this sustained burst of art-related activity, I retired to the Teachout Museum (otherwise known as my living room) to straighten pictures and watch Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, an utterly serious movie cunningly disguised as a light comedy, and The Lodger, John Brahm’s 1944 not-quite-remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent-movie retelling of the tale of Jack the Ripper. For reasons not obvious to me, The Lodger is unavailable on DVD or videocassette (I harvested it from the Fox Movie Channel). Be that as it may, it sports a terrific performance by the ever-interesting Laird Cregar, about whom some adventurous buff ought to write a gossipy biography, and a first-rate score by Hugo Friedhofer, who spent most of his time orchestrating other composers’ film music. He did manage to snag a few memorable movies of his own, though, including The Best Years of Our Lives, One-Eyed Jacks, Ace in the Hole, and Brahm’s The Lodger. Keep an eye out for this one—it’s fun.
• I also plugged a gaping hole in my cultural literacy which I’m not quite embarrassed enough to keep to myself. I bought a copy of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s
The Leopard many years ago, but somehow never got around to reading it. It’s been on my shelf ever since, peering out at me reproachfully from time to time, and I finally popped it in my overnight bag last week and knocked it off in two ecstatic sittings, the first on the train to Washington and the second in my hotel room that same night. I loved it, of course, in much the same way that I love Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and for most of the same reasons. I have no excuse for not having read The Leopard sooner, save for a similar "excuse" recorded by Evelyn Waugh in a diary entry where he speaks of the "vast, uncovenanted pleasure" of having saved The Wings of the Dove for his late middle age. (I’m quoting from memory—if anybody out there knows the passage in question, would you be so kind as to send me the exact quote?)
Enough? I should damn well think so, which is why I’m taking a few days off. Ars longa, vita brevis, as my therapist says.
"The estate office was still empty, lit silently by the sun through closed shutters. Although the scene of more frivolity than anywhere else in the villa, its appearance was of calm austerity. On whitewashed walls, reflected in wax-polished tiles, hung enormous pictures representing the various Salina estates: there, in bright colors contrasting with the gold and black frame, was Salina, the island of the twin mountains, surrounded by a sea of white-flecked waves on which pranced beflagged galleons; Querceta, its low houses grouped around the rustic church on which were converging groups of bluish-colored pilgrims; Ragattisi, tucked under mountain gorges; Argivocale, tiny in contrast to the vast plains of corn dotted with hard-working peasants; Donnafugata, with its baroque palace, goal of coaches in scarlet and green adn gilt, loaded with women, wine, and violins; and many others, all protected by a taut reassuring sky and by the Leopard grinning between long whiskers. Each picture was festive—each trying to show the enlightened empire, like wine, of the House of Salina. Ingenuous masterpieces of rustic art from the previous century; useless, though, at showing boundaries, or detailing areas or tenancies; such things remained obscure. The wealth of many centuries had been transmitted into ornament, luxury, pleasure; no more; the abolition of feudal rights had swept away duties as well as privileges; wealth, like an old wine, had let the dregs of greed, even of care and prudence, fall to the bottom of the barrel, leaving only verve and color. And thus eventually it cancelled itself out; this wealth which had achieved its object was composed now only of essential oils—and, like essential oils, it soon evaporated. Already some of the estates which looked so gay in those pictures had taken wing, leaving behind only bright-colored paintings and names. Others seemed, like those September swallows which though still present are grouped stridently on trees, ready for departure. But there were so many; it seemed they could never end."
A friend of mine who recently published a book is giving a bookstore reading in a couple of weeks, and wrote to me the other day to ask me if I had any tips. I had plenty, since I gave a couple of dozen such talks while promoting The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, so I sent him a long e-mail crammed with advice. It occurred to me that some of you might possibly find it interesting, so I decided to post it.
If you’ve ever seen me give a speech, you can judge for yourself whether I practiced what I preach!
* * *
A speech—and this includes a reading—is a performance. It's theater. The people who came to hear you don't want you to shamble up to the podium, mumble a few unintelligible introductory words, open up a store copy of your book, and stick your nose in it for the next half-hour. They expect you to look and sound prepared—and you'll feel more comfortable if you do.
To that end, here's how I do my readings, step by step:
(1) Don't read too much. No matter how good your book is, you don’t want to spend all your time reading from it. You also need to make direct contact with your listeners, which is harder to do when you're reading out loud from a text written for the eye, not the ear. If you've been asked to perform for thirty minutes, speak for ten, read for just short of twenty, then deliver a prepared coda at the end of the excerpt from the book.
(2) Write your speech out word for word. If you're an experienced public speaker accustomed to working from sketchy notes, fine. If you know you can wing it like a virtuoso, more power to you—but in either case, you wouldn't be asking for tips from me. If you're anybody else, write the speech out word for word, then practice reading it aloud until your delivery sounds natural and conversational. (See below for instructions.) Otherwise, you'll get lost in a thicket of likes and you knows and ers and ahs—and you'll talk too long.
Which brings us to
(3) Time the speech exactly. Do not under any circumstances exceed your allotted time. In fact,
(4) Never speak for as long as you're asked. In my experience, thirty minutes is ideal, especially if you're new at this. Go on for much longer and people will start to squirm, which is contagious. If you're asked to speak for forty-five minutes (including the reading), hold it to a half-hour, then go straight to questions from the audience. You don't have to ask permission from the presenter!
(5) Choose a fairly self-contained excerpt from the book. It doesn't have to begin or end neatly—you can set up the excerpt as needed in your introductory remarks—but do take care that what you read will be intelligible to those who haven't already read the book. (Don’t be afraid to leave 'em hanging at the end!)
(6) Don't read from a printed copy of the book. Not only does it look awkward, even unprofessional, but too many things can go wrong (i.e., dropping the book and losing your place). Instead, I printed out my speech and reading text in a single manuscript set in large, bold type, big enough that I could read it without my glasses if need be.
(7) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Read the speech and the book excerpt aloud, at least twice and preferably in front of somebody else. Then pay close attention to what they tell you.
(8) Strive for vocal emphasis and variety. Most authors are ineffective in front of an audience because their delivery is dull. The goal is to sound like you're talking informally, not lecturing (and that includes whatever passages you choose to read from the book itself). Each sentence should have its own point of emphasis. Find it and mark it in your manuscript. Don't trust your memory—underline key words, or highlight them in boldface. And be sure to keep your energy level high. If you don't sound excited, your listeners won't feel excited.
(9) When you can, look at the audience. You don't have to look at them all the time, though. If you've done what I told you to do in (8), your oral delivery will be sufficiently varied that you can hold the audience's attention without making constant eye contact. Still, do try to look up from your speech at least once on every page. The more direct contact you make, the more books you'll sell.
(10) After you've read the speech out loud, change it. A speech is written to be spoken. The point of reading it out loud in advance of the performance is to discover what sits naturally on your tongue and what doesn't. Remember that the audience isn't following a printed copy. They must understand every word you say. Whenever you stumble over a word or have difficulty picking your way through an over-complicated phrase, change it.
While you're at it, don't hesitate to change the text of the book excerpt if you find you have similar problems reading any part of it out loud. Your listeners won't know the difference. (You can also make cuts without telling them.)
(11) Start with something funny. I know, it's the biggest cliché in the world, but it really does loosen up the audience—and you, too, which is at least as important.
(12) When quoting someone else for more than a phrase or two, hold up a page of the printed speech and "read" from it. This is a visual aid intended to make it obvious to your listeners that you're not reading your own words. It's amazing how this will increase audience comprehension.
(13) If at all possible, e-mail copies of your speech to the various presenters before leaving town. This isn't so they can review it and ask for changes—it’s to ensure that there'll be a copy of the speech on hand in case you lose, misplace, or forget yours. (That happened to me once, in Philadelphia. Don't ask.)
(14) Before you leave town, double-check your printed copy of the manuscript. Make sure it contains each numbered page and that the pages are in the correct order. Do the same thing before you leave your hotel room to go to the place where you're speaking. Do it every time. The one time you forget to do it is the time that pages 16 and 22 will be switched, thus causing you to crash and burn.
(15) Arrive early enough for a soundcheck. Don't trust the presenter. Make sure there's a podium (yes, it's happened to me), that it’s deep and wide enough to hold your manuscript, that the sound system works, that the microphone can be raised to an adequate height, and that there's a glass of water—without ice—within easy reach.
(16) Never apologize for being nervous. The only time you should do this is if you are visibly nervous, in which case a self-deprecating remark will help to put the crowd on your side—but only do it once.
(17) Never apologize for stumbling over a word. Correct it, then move on.
(18) Make sure the audience knows when you're through. You don't have to say "thank you." Just pause, then lower your head. That way they'll start clapping.
(19) Be sure to allow enough time for questions. If the presenter doesn't oblige, take matters into your own hands. Audiences love to ask questions (except for students—they usually clam up tight, especially in a classroom setting).
One last thing:
(20) Be polite with hecklers—but be firm. If you're polite, the audience will back you all the way. That gives you permission to be as firm as necessary. Point out that other people also have questions to ask. If you run afoul of an obsessive, over-persistent questioner, politely suggest that he speak to you privately afterward, then go straight to the next question.