Archive for September, 2009

John Irving Meets His Readers

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Many readers of fiction have an intense relationship with the authors they love. Eugenio Bolongaro describes this phenomenon as an “emotional closeness, a willingness to make oneself not only listen to the language of the author but also be hospitable to it.”  In his 1947 book-length essay, What is Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre observed how reading involves “a pact of generosity between author and reader.”

On Saturday I visited the 2009 National Book Festival.  This annual outdoor event is sponsored by the Library of Congress and is held on the grounds of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a space sometimes referred to as “America’s front lawn.” It is a grand public platform for the display of emotional bonds between readers and authors.

Among the seventy or so writers signing books at this year’s Festival was the novelist John Irving.  I brought with me a copy of the The World According to Garp — the very same copy I read in April, 1979, when the book first came out in paperback.  Reading Garp back then struck me like a punch to the solar plexus.  (My apologies to Irving acolytes for using a boxing simile when describing a book infused with the sport of wrestling.) Garp is one of the few novels I’ve read twice. John Irving is one of the few authors whose new books I eagerly await.

Hundreds of ardent readers were in line hoping for an audience, however brief, with the author.  Aside from Garp, the book I spied most often in people’s hands was A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was struck by how worn (meaning, well-read) most of these books were. People were not here to get a valuable signature added to a mint condition book — something they could then sell on eBay. No, these readers had come with purer desires: to place a cherished object into the hands of its begetter; to ask for that object to be recognized and certified by its creator; and to retrieve the now-blessed book for renewed cherishing.

Author and reader are typically separated by time and space, but on this day those forces collapsed into a moment of connection.

As I joined the bright-faced, well-behaved crowd, I recalled a political opinion (this is Washington, D.C., after all) expressed by William F. Buckley, Jr., who said, “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” What I was thinking was this: if I were allowed to introduce a third choice, I select a government led by National Book Festival attendees. Yes, that might make me one of the governors. (No system is flawless.)

The hour from noon until 1:00 was given over to John Irving’s book signing event.  Time expired, leaving the back half of the line, me included, unrequited.  But a few minutes before Irving departed (he kept at his task an extra 15 minutes) I was able to maneuver my way to a vantage point close to where he was greeting the last lucky cohort of book-clutching readers.  Where I planted my feet turned out to be a charmed perspective from which to capture a remarkable sight.  I had come to the Festival this day expecting to leave with an inked name on a yellowing page.  What I brought back, instead, is a video record of the aftermath of those final moments of connection between author and reader.

Watch as each reader, spontaneously, in his or her own fashion, expresses joy:

The Man in the Mirror

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Ouch! —

“I understand that in a constitutional republic, people are afforded certain liberties to speak their minds. But we are also afforded, please let’s remember, the right to zip it. To keep a stiff upper lip. To grin and bear it. Because for the most part, our opinions are usually much more fascinating to us than to everyone else. Take it from a guy whose website address is his own name.”

(Tony Woodlief, in a September 16, 2009 blog post entitled, “The Emotive Impulse,” here.)

On my mind: Three questions

Monday, September 14th, 2009

1.  Are Americans getting shorter?

Each day on my way to and from work I pass through an urban university campus.  This time of year brings a new crop of first year students moving into dorms and enjoying the fast approach of fall. In recent years I’ve noticed a halt in the growth of students, by which I mean their height.  This September, on dorm move-in days, I saw several sets of parents who were discernibly taller than their matriculating offspring. What’s going on here? I found a possible answer in articles indicating Europeans are now taller than Americans.  The reason, according to the authors (Europeans themselves) is America’s inferior health care system and our greater social/economic inequality. Studies are beginning to conclude Americans have long since stopped growing, and, by some measures, may actually be getting smaller.

2.  Why does “Wednesday” have such a weird spelling?

I just set up an appointment for next Wednesday.  I’ve always disliked that day, or, more precisely, the way “Wednesday” sounds to the ear and looks in print, because it obeys no rule of how pronunciation should relate to spelling. What accounts for its oddness? Someone posting a comment to the WordReference forum had this answer: “I would like to share a point that the modern spellings are derived from their ancient forms after a lot of phonological changes. According to the phonological phenomenon called “syncope”, we are bound to spell it as wenz-di. Please find more about these under the concepts of metaplasm. I hope this information proves useful to everyone.”  So should we all start spelling it “wenzdi” (at least when texting)?

3.  Is anybody else cringing as they watch that new iPod Nano “Jump” video?

Apple just introduced a new version of the iPod Nano that includes a video camera.  One of the videos the company created to show off the feature is entitled “Jump,” available on the Apple website here and on CNN Video here (starting at 1:22).   In a 15-second episode, three teenagers in swimsuits jump, upright, feet first, into the clear waters of a bay.  My guess is this is somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and I estimate the jump to be between 10 and 20 feet straight down. Visible beneath the water’s surface is an ominous clump of large rocks — a gathering of boulders lying in wait.  Am I the only one watching and wondering how dangerous this exercise was to life and limb?

Chasing the Horizon

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

I became enamored of the poetry of Stephen Crane back in junior high school.  Gnomic, ironic, and all too brief, Crane’s free verse has a special appeal to the adolescent sensibility.  Here’s a poem I memorized:

          I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
          Round and round they sped.
          I was disturbed at this;
          I accosted the man.
          “It is futile,” I said,
          “You can never — “

          “You lie,” he cried,
          And ran on.

As a teenager I sympathized with that small man pursuing the horizon.  All honor was due to Sisyphus and his lesser brethren.  Decades later I’m inclined to see the fellow as mad, a denier of fact, a fool. 

I was reminded of this today when reading a provocative post on The Daily Dish, written by guest-blogger Jim Manzi.  His essay (yes, the post is substantial enough to deserve that label) is entitled “The Socialism Implicit in the Social Cost of Carbon.”   Manzi argues, convincingly I think, that calculating a social cost of burning carbon — toting up its heavy negative externalities — is a fool’s errand.  It represents a blinkered approach to the goal of optimizing human welfare over the long term.  There is every reason to believe we will misquantify the costs, and no reason to believe the costs of this one activity are more egregious than those of any other social activity pursued in our interconnected world.  Man-made climate change is real, yet the seeds of Armageddon are hidden in a myriad of human actions (our pride and prejudice was clear before it went nuclear).  Somehow the role of global bad guy, most horrible among horribles, has been dealt exclusively to carbon, forgiving other worthy applicants.  We unthinkingly set about pursuing curtailment of fossil fuel burning, even when curtailment efforts may harm us more than the harm of inaction. 

Manzi refers to our current fixation on carbon’s cost as chasing an endlessly receding horizon of zero risk.