Thursday, June 30, 2005

A luncheon talk ...

I was invited to speak this afternoon over lunch at the Franklin Inn Club. What follows is a version of my remarks:

My topic is Reading as a Creative Act.
What’s that supposed to mean? Writing — that’s creative, at least it can be. But reading? What’s creative about that?
Well, let me remind you of an experience I suspect everyone in this room has had at one time or another:
You go the movies and see a picture based on a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed. And you find you’re disappointed — because you imagined it all differently from the way the filmmakers did. You imagined it in your own particular way, a highly personal way.
So consider: An imaginative writer — a novelist, say — creates a text. But that text remains in what the medieval scholastics called a state of potency until somebody reads it. Reading actuates the potency. But the reader does that by bringing to bear on the text his or her own imagination.
It’s a lot like what happens when an instrumentalist plays a piece of music. If you heard me play the Prelude No. 1 from Bach’s first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier and then put on a recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing the same piece, you’d know right away who was the more creative reader of the score.
Moreover, when you play a piece of music and everything goes right, even though it’s your fingers striking the keys, and your foot on the pedal, the experience you have sitting there isn’t so much of something that you’re doing as it is of something that is happening through you. “You are the music while the music lasts,” as Eliot put it. No good musician ever plays exactly what’s written down. He brings to what he is playing a wealth of knowledge, skill, taste, and experience.
The same thing happens often when you’re reading. You get completely absorbed. You lose all sense of time and place and even, sometimes, the sense of yourself. You’re with Nostromo in Panama or soaring over the rooftops of London with Scrooge and one of the Christmas ghosts. You’re no longer here and now. Now, you’re there.
That’s why it’s so silly when people talk about reading the Bible literally. No text, least of all one as rich as the Bible, deserves to be read that way, because it reduces words to mere signs. And words are more than signs. They’re symbols. They have connotations. They resonate. They’re redolent.
This is something I’ve come to think about a lot since becoming The Inquirer’s book review editor five years ago. I’ve been reviewing books professionally for over 40 years, and I’ve been an avid reader since childhood. But when I got this job I found myself reading more than I ever had before.
And I discovered something very intriguing. I found my interest in more passive forms of entertainment had dropped noticeably. I can hardly watch television at all. Most of the shows seem hardly to rub elbows with reality. I also find myself impatient at movies. As often as not they don’t engage me as quickly and completely as a good book can. They leave too little up to my imagination.
This has led me to a better understanding of what I think my job ought to be about. I have found that a lot of people in my position think that they are somehow or other in the service of LIT-rature. I see myself as being in the service of reading — and readers. Because I think it is very important that people realize how essential the act of reading is to maintaining a mind that is active.
Of course, there is reading and there is reading. Readers can fall into a rut, reading the same sort of thing over and over. That’s fine if what you’re reading and re-reading is something like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Shakespeare’s plays. Those texts are practically infinite in their richness. Now I like thrillers; I read and review a lot of them — but a steady diet of them lulls the mind into a pattern of repetition. And repetition weakens the mind.
That’s why it’s important to maintain one’s acquaintance with the classics. And with poetry, the richest, most concentrated form of verbal expression. Engagement with a truly rich text enables the mind to encounter the world afresh. And we feel more alive when the world looks fresh.
So I will conclude with a poem, one by Wallace Stevens, which makes some of the same points I have been trying to — but in a far more elegant way than I ever could. It’s called “The house was quiet and the world was calm.”

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Tales of two novelists ...

On Friday Ann Althouse linked to Richard Lawrence Cohen's example of a Literary Rivalry. Part Two of Rivalry appeared on Sunday.
I think the first of these defines two equally valid approaches. Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene traveled the world. Jane Austen and William Faulkner pretty much stayed at home.
The second difference I'm not so sure about. I think most writers work at their craft every day, and make their own inspiration.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Blogging hiatus ...

I was so busy last week I didn't realize how large the blogging gap had become. But we were short-handed at the office (which happens this time of the year), so we all pitched in to get things done.
But this gives me an opportunity to let people behind the scenes, which is one of the things this blog is about.
I went to BookExpo America at the beginning of June. That meant being out of the office for a couple of days. And that meant that email, books, and regular mail would pile up. So what? you ask. It's only a couple of days. A couple of days in my job can mean a couple of hundred books and at least a couple of hundred emails. I have nearly 2,000 in my inbox right now, which I must dutifully plow through before I start my vacation on July 8.
But that's not all. After I got back from BEA, I had to prepare for a panel I was on at the Rosenbach Museum as part of its annual Bloomsday celebration. And I was a featured reader at Bloomsday as well. All such things require preparation -- unless you're content to make a fool of yourself in public, which I admit I'm reluctant to do. This week I'm trying to move reviews for the rest of July -- and I'm scheduled to give a talk at the Franklin Inn cLub on Thursday.
All of which means I will barely keep my head above the waters of the clerical flood.
Still, I plan to resume regular blogging tomorrow morning.

Monday, June 20, 2005

A Joycean coincidence ...

Last year, Inquirer photographer Eric Mencher and I went to Dublin to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom in order to do a piece for the Bloomsday Centenary.
Last week, Eric was at the Consitution Center taking photos for the paper and met an Italian journalist, Anna Casanova, who was here to write a travel piece about our fair city. Eric suggested she visit the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which was just about to celebrate Bloomsday once again, as it does every year (the manuscript of Ulysses resides there). Ms. Casanova told him she had already been there, that it was the reason she was in the city. Seems she had seen the work Eric and I did online (which really means she was taken by his spectacular photos) and used it to pitch a story about Philly.
Sounds like something Joyce would have made up.

Italian journalist Anna Casanova outside the Constitution Center in Philadellphia. (Photo by Eric Mencher) Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Orwell to the rescue ...

For those inclined to give Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin a pass on his remarks this past week comparing alleged bad behavior at Gitmo to the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Cambodian Killing Fields, I link to George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
Consider this: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
And this: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy ... And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved ...."
But read the whole thing. It will do wonders for your prose.

On blind chance ...

Rumor has it my previous post will stir up a hornet's nest. Well, that's good. If everyone stays reasonable we may all end up learning something. In the meantime, here's a passage worth pondering from A.S. Byatt's novel Still Life:

Consider the bee orchid, that trap in the form of a female bee that invites the agitated male to grasp, to penetrate, to shake on the flower flesh that then tips him into a vegetable prison where he must roll, for its fertilization, until it withers. Marcus, like most human beings was constrained to see this as a work of intelligence, not of pure chance. If over millenia the form of the flower has more and more exactly approached the deceptive form of the bee, and the live mechanism has been perfected, it is beyond our intelligence to conceieve of this happening without intelligence. Blind chance is so much harder to imagine, and bears little relation to what we usually mean by chance, the random blow of fate or stroke of luck, the falling of the coin, or rocketing of the billiard balls, this way or that. Through centuries we have believed that our minds mirror the order of things and can therefore appreciate it. The flower has no eyes to see the exactness of its parody. How it knows, if it knows, that it is exact is beyond the scope of our apprehension. Because of the bee orchid, because of that disturbing trope (like Coleridge's marble peach in once sense, a copy, not an image), Marcus had come to extend his ant-god into a pervasive organizing intelligence. He still believed it had nothing to do with him. He struggled not to say, "It was designed to look like a female bee," but it was almost impossible not to believe in a Designer.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and category errors ...

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit linked last week to a piece on Intelligent Design by Jim Pinkerton at TechCentral. This is one of the better discussions of ID theory that I have seen. Maybe I think that because it raises the same objection I have: that a metaphysical answer to a scientific question is no answer at all -- and that is what ID theory proposes. Of course, a scientific answer to a metaphysical question is no answer at all, either. Both wrong answers constitute what is known in philosophy as category error.

There is another problem with Intelligent Design theory. A couple of years ago I reviewed a book called The Probability of God by Stephen D. Unwin. In it I noted that Unwin, a theoretical physicist turned risk analyst, had raised "one of the more interesting objections to intelligent design theory: Given that we 'lack so much understanding of God,' the 'engineering notion of intelligent design' seems not only naive but also presumptuous." I have always thought it better to think that God as Creator has more in common with Michelangelo or Bach than with Edison or Ford.

Still, neo-Darwinian theory isn't without it's problems either. The question Michael Behe raises about irreducible complexity happens to be a good one -- and it is not answered by speculating about how such complexity could have come about in accordance with random selection. Factual data is what is needed, not a sequence of suppositions. The fact is we don't know how something like the eye developed. Saying God made it happen doesn't tell us anything, since God -- for those of us who believe in God -- makes everything happen. But saying it could have developed this way or that if such and such were the case, etc. doesn't tell us anything, either.
There happen to be very good, strictly scientific objections to the Darwinian model of evolution (I put it that way because I think that, except for those who think the world was made about 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour periods, most people think that life and species developed over time from simpler to more complex forms).
A pretty thorough overview of these objections -- and much else besides -- can be found here.
In the meantime, maybe it's worth taking another look at Teilhard de Chardin. Here's a piece in Wired about the Jesuit paleontologist and friend of Julian Huxley who saw evolution in religious -- indeed mystical -- terms.
Eugene Volokh also has some thoughts on evolution and religion that are well worth considering.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A night off ...

Taking a break from blogging and just about everything else tonight. Working on some poems. Because every now and then it's good to go back to what got you interested in something in the first place.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Where have all the critics gone?

The excellent Arts & Letters Daily recently linked to an artcle by Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times titled Critical condition. Key paragraph:
... many newspaper and magazine critics pine for a golden age when giants walked the Earth: When the imposing Clement Greenberg was shaping modernism in painting, the biting H.L. Mencken was exhuming the reputation of Theodore Dreiser, and the impious Leslie Fiedler found unsettling Freudian meanings in the novels of Mark Twain.
I'm not sure we're any worse off for the lack of a dominant arbiter of taste. A good part of the 20th century was for a while called the Age of Eliot. I like Eliot's poetry. I like his criticism less. I can do without F.R. Leavis pretty much altogether. Criticism that lasts is a form of memoir. We meet the person through what he tells us of his likes and dislikes. The actual judgments are more or less beside the point -- unless they happen to be especially cogent, which they often aren't. I suspect that there will emerge eventually from the blogosphere a number a strong personalities who will exert a powerful influence on contemporary taste. I just hope the number is large enough to allow for some variety. What is not needed is a single domineering voice.

Is art anything?

Central Arts has posted an article by John Carey that ran in the Sunday Times on May 22. It's an excerpt from Carey's book What Good Are the Arts? -- just out in Britain, but apparently not available on these shores yet -- and its conclusion is that something is a work of art if someone thinks it is. My own feeling is that to be unable to differentiate between Bach's B-minor Mass and a can of human excrement is evidence of a profound failure of language and logic.
A review by David Lodge of Carey's book ran in the Sunday Times on May 29.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On the matter of embargoes ....

At the BEA on Saturday I attended a panel discussion about book embargoes.
From time to time publishers don't want anything about a partiular book published before a particular time. Recent examples would be Bill Clinton's, Jane Fonda's, and Bob Dylan's exercises in autobiography.
In the case of the Dylan opus, when I was asked by the publisher to consider it for review -- a request accompanied by an announcement that the book would be embargoed and that no review copies would be available until the publication date -- I replied that I might have been interested if I hadn't known that the New York Times would have a review out the very same day the book hit the stores ... because the Times would have somehow been given a copy beforehand.
The publisher responded by agreeing to provide a review copy on condition that I sign an agreement promising not to release anything about the book prior to its pub date. I signed, they sent the book, and music critic Tom Moon had a piece about the book the same day it book came out.
The BEA panel included freelancer John Freeman (who reviews regularly for The Inquirer), San Francisco Chronicle book critic David Kipen, Chicago Trubune book editor Elizabeth Taylor, and former Nation book editor Art Winslow. Unanimously, they declared that they had never, ever signed any such agreement, and never would. Freeman had the best reason: He'd be signing for himself, not on behalf of some large entity like a metropolitan daily newspaper, and would be personally liable. Under such circumstances I probably wouldn't sign either.
Otherwise I beg to differ with all of these distinguished colleagues of mine. Except for Freeman, all seemed to think that not signing was some kind of badge of honor, a demonstration of some sort of purity of motive and intent. Nobody seemed to be thinking about what the readers of their respective publications might want. The sort of books that get embargoed aren't usually the kind book review editors care that much about. But lifestyle editors and pop arts editors do care about them. They would like their readers to read about them as soon as possible, certainly as soon as readers of the New Yoprk Times can.
No one on the panel brought up what may be obvious from what I said above: What bothers me is that the same publisher who would keep me from getting a review copy of a book won't be so careful to keep the Times from getting one.
As for the fact that, by signing, I'm aiding and abetting the publicity campaign on behalf of the book -- well, folks, all those booths outside the room where the panel was taking place were put there by businesses. The BEA, mirabile dictu, is a business convention. Books are a product, a commodity, and if they don't get sold, the only thing any of us will be signing is a foreclosure document.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Not so live after all ...

Live blogging turned out to be impossible. Odd that the Javits Center should have no Internet facilities. And HarperCollins may have offered free wireless service, but my laptop wasn't connecting to it and I wasn't the only one having that problem. There was an Internet cafe, but the BEA is so large, and the Javits Center so sprawling that one simply doesn't have the time to go off somewhere for a while and blog or do much else. You're lucky if you can catch a bite to eat or a cup of coffee.
I plan to write a piece about it -- mostly of my impressions -- and when I get back to Philly tomorrow I'll post a couple of photos that I hope prove neat. But except for going to dinner I've been most on my feet since 9:30 this morning. I've talked to publicist upon publicist, taken a shot of some Star Wars soldiers, and another of Ben Franklin, who was incarnated at least twice at the event, one presence fairly svelte, the other rather plump.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Not live yet at the BEA...

No chance to live blog at the BEA today. Too many people to meet and chat with, too much to scope out – and the Javits Center doesn’t have wireless. Things look better for tomorrow. HarperCollins is offering free wireless, which I hope to avail myself of.
In the meantime Melville Goodwin, commenting on my previous post, posed a question that does seem to be getting some buzz: How are commercial publishers reacting to the explosion of self-publishing?
As it happens, last night I talked about just that with Mike Shatzkin, CEO of TheIdeaLogical Company, a publishing consulting firm. Mike thinks the self-publishing companies can be for traditional commercial publishers what farm teams are for sports franchises (we were at a Mets game). The problem is coming up with an effective filtering system that will identify the genuine prospects as quickly as possible. He has an idea similar to one I had already talked about with some people at The Inquirer (but I'll leave it at that, because it’s such a good idea, I don’t want it to get around just yet. Still open to other ideas, though.
My day is not over. I have another appointment. Maybe I can get back here later and give some idea of what exactly BEA is like.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

I'll take Manhattan

Off to NYC for BookExpo America, the grand annual confab of the publishing industry. Hope to do some live blogging from there starting tomorrow (if all goes well technically, as it did not the last time I went on the road). Have any questions you want put to the publishers' reps? Post them, and I'll pose them.