Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Any Good Books, October, 2019

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson (Ecco, 2019)

        It's characteristic of the thoroughness of Cecelia Watson's research that the she knows both the date of the semicolon's invention (1494) and the name of the inventor, a Venetian publisher; the type designer was Bolognese. The humanists of the Renaissance were busy inventing marks, most of which quickly faded out of use; the semicolon survived because of its utility as a way to mark a pause, longer than the one marked by a comma, and shorter than that of a colon. In other words, its use was purely a matter of prosody, the music of language.

        From the middle of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, grammarians contended to publish the most thorough explications of English grammar, and the most 'scientific'. The competition was fierce; one dauntless scholar published “The Grammar of English Grammars, which contained 1,192 pages filled with tiny print surveying a selection of 548 English grammar books that had been published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, up until the 1852 printing of his own book.” Some authors based their grammatical theories on Latin and Greek; others attempted logical induction directly from English. They all had much the same difficulty: “how could it be possible to give useful rules for punctuation, while at the same time acknowledging that those rules couldn't describe every valid approach to punctuating a text?” 

       But it was ever thus: ambiguity creeps in through the cracks. Watson has a couple of chapters about legal situations where the rules were asked to carry more weight than they really could bear. “Any remaining hope that the law could somehow escape the challenges posed by punctuation went out the window when a semicolon set about wreaking havoc up and down the Northeast Corridor in a dramatic Massachusetts court case that caused six years of controversy in courtrooms, in legislative debates, and in the streets.” Six years! 
       She has another couple of chapters about the stylistic uses of the semicolon. Herman Melville wrote in the nineteenth century, the semicolon's golden age. “No,” says Watson, “it's not really that Melville uses the semicolon to stretch out the distance between a capital letter and a period; instead, the semicolons are in the service of carrying you slowly, gently, pleasurably away from whatever it was you thought you were reading about–the process of beheading the whale, or how to assess winds, or cannibalism.”

       In the hands of the modern essayist Rebecca Solnit, on the other hand, “A semicolon is sometimes not a pause, but the opposite: an instrument of quickness, a little springboard that launches you rapidly from thought to thought.” These observations return the semicolon to the realm of music. The punctuation may, incidentally, accord with The Chicago Manual of Style, but it was chosen for its rhythm. 
       Watson is not opposed to rules, exactly, but she is opposed to idolatry about them. For one thing, as we've seen, they had to be invented. For another, they can make no claim to completeness, because the language is always flourishing in new ways. As language changes, we imagine that it decays, because the rules of our youth pass out of fashion; in reality, though, “[t]here was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated 'properly.'” 
      She's also opposed to the pernicious snobbery by which those of us who happened to grow up speaking the dominant dialect ascribe some kind of moral virtue to following the rules. “Rules can be an easy, lazy way to put the onus on someone else: if you make a grammar mistake while trying to convey something heartfelt, I can just point out that you've used a comma splice and I'm excused from confronting what you were saying, since you didn't say it properly.” Don't be that person. Communicating is better than standing on privilege, any day.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

At the Strangers' Gate

At the Strangers' Gate: Arrivals in New York
Adam Gopnik (2017, Vintage Books)

     In 1980, Adam Gopnik and his soon-to-be-wife, Martha, left Montreal for the brighter lights of New York. They were just kids when they arrived, twenty and eighteen, and they moved into an absurd apartment, a nine-by-eleven basement studio on East Eighty-seventh Street. “We were so enraptured with the idea of our escaping and intertwining that everything unappealing about the place was transposed into the key of irresistible.” 
     That is to say, it was an optimistic time. Martha was studying film-making at Columbia, and Adam was starting art-history graduate school, though his ambitions also including writing for magazines and composing for Broadway. Everything seemed possible. “If your faith is in life's poetry, as ours was, a tiny room inadequate by any human standard and designed to make life borderline impossible looks appealing. The less possible it becomes, the more beautiful the illusion looks.”

     Gopnik says (and, being his age, I agree) “Forty years is the natural gestation time of nostalgia, the interval it takes for a past period to become a lost time, and, sometimes, a golden age.” We don't really feel that way about the eighties, especially in New York, where the brassiness of the gold rush has left an unpleasant stain, to this day, on our economic lives. “Today the young live less absurd lives, but have more chastened ambitions. Adequacy seems, bitterly, enough.”

     Forty years ago, sweetly, fake-Scandinavian ice cream was new. “The apartments got smaller and the ice cream got fattier. Eating premium ice cream in a tiny space with roaches was almost the same as living in a reasonable amount of room.” By the same token, lunchtime talks about the pictures at the Museum of Modern Art for fifty dollars a time seemed like a fair start in the working world. “In the eighties, fluidity of opportunity made up for absurdity of occupation. You did a silly job, but having jobs was not in itself silly–one led to a better one.” 

     In Gopnik's case, that meant becoming the fashion copyeditor at Gentlemen's Quarterly, though he was singularly unqualified on nearly all counts. Martha had all the fashion sense in the family, and all the eye for detail. What Adam had was a way with words. “...I pounded out, with ever-increasing confidence, rules and diktats and nonnegotiable dogmas on grooming.” Really, what was there to say? “Perhaps the truth is that fashion can only be diktats, and our respect for fashion is our secret respect for the necessity of an arbitrary principle in life.”

     With a newly full-time salary, the Gopniks made a giant leap upward, into SoHo. Against all odds, they found a fifteen hundred square foot loft space in the middle of an urban village where the work of art making occurred behind every historic cast-iron facade. (The upstairs neighbor worked in straw, dead fish having proved impractical.) As an art historian and critic, Gopnik was at the center of the known world, though I freely confess that I have to take his word for the value and meaning of the various works on offer. 

     Job led on to job, editing fiction for GQ and then for Knopf, and eventually writing at The New Yorker, all before the age of twenty-seven; it would seem magical if you didn't know about all the work behind it. In the case of The New Yorker, the work was to walk around, to look and listen. He cultivated the legendary Joseph Mitchell, who put him onto what he calls the secret of good writing: “a wild exactitude.” Gopnik says, “Flat descriptive sentences describing an absurdly vivid character, simple inventories of impossible objects–that was the end! Good stories were strange stories told straight.” 

     It's likely that this book will mean more to you if you ever saw New York in the eighties, but if not, don't let that stop you. Gopnik's wild exactitude is always worth the price of admission.

Email edition September 1, 2019

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Whole Five Feet

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
Christopher R. Beha (Grove Press, 2009)

     When he set out to read the Harvard Classics in 2007, Christopher Beha was at something of a loose end. He had broken up with his girlfriend, left his editorial job, and moved back into his parents' apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He had a degree from Princeton, and a Masters in creative writing, but his novel wasn't selling, and the publishing career looked like an all-too-comfortable dead end. Fortunately, his parents could afford to shelter his retreat from independence, and, when his aunt's terminal cancer caused her to move in as well, he was there to help. It was to be a tough year for his own health as well, and his reading project became a lifeline.

     The Harvard Classics set is not often spoken of these days. When it is, it's as the epitome of the Dead White Men canon; a curiosity rather than a living document. But it was once as much a part of the middle class home as the piano in the parlor, and for a similar reason: people aspired to partake of Culture, in an un-ironic way that we can scarcely now conceive. In 1909, Charles William Eliot, after some forty years as president of Harvard, was invited by the publisher P. F. Collier & Son to compile the collection, following on a remark he had sometimes made that "a five-foot shelf would hold books enough to give in the course of years a good substitute for a liberal education." He proposed omitting Shakespeare and the Bible, on the grounds that people already owned them; in the end, they made the cut. Dickens and Thackeray had to wait for the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, a twenty-volume successor to the fifty-one-volume Five-Foot Shelf.

     Beha initially conceived of reading the whole 22,000 pages in one year as the sort of literary stunt that had seen such successes as cooking all of Julia Child, or swallowing the Oxford English Dictionary: a sort of indoor Appalachian Trail. "The book I intended to write was essentially a comedy, about a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world and its cultural white noise–from life as it's lived in his own time and place–in order to immerse himself in classic literature." It became something much more than that when he learned how the Shelf had shaped his late grandmother's life. In his youth, he had often seen the books in her house at Sag Harbor, but he'd never gotten much beyond Eliot's introduction. "I realized that a woman I had never thought of as especially literary had likely gained from these books a greater grasp on the history of literary culture than her grandson now had."

     A front-to-back reading was almost certainly not what Eliot had in mind; the last two volumes contain lectures and reading guides that outline possible paths through the volumes. One could read philosophy, religion, drama, or poetry in a connected way. One might concentrate on Greece (Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles) or France (Racine, Descartes, Rousseau) or the United States (Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson.) The randomness of taking the volumes as they came was compelling in its own right, though. Beha keeps being moved by the conversation the authors are already having with one another: "I was still reading to some degree to acquire knowledge, and I was certainly still reading for pleasure. But I was also reading to be a part in a great chain of readers: Aurelius read Plato, then Aurelius died. Milton read Aurelius, then Milton died. And here I sat up in bed reading Milton, fighting off the time when sleep would overtake me. Such is everything."

     And here am I reading Christopher Beha (who went on to publish novels, and edit for Harper's;) and you are reading me. There's no telling how far back it goes, or how far forward. Much as we enjoy the doing of it, isn't it lovely to step back and look at reading that way?

Monday, July 1, 2019

Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Ruth Reichl (Penguin Books, 2006)
     Sometimes, you're the last to know about your own life. In 1993, while she was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl got a call from the New York Times trying to lure her back East. The Times already knew her work, and they knew she'd say yes. The department secretary knew. Her journalist husband arranged with his employer for a spot in their New York bureau. She grudgingly agreed to a day of interviews; still thinking she wasn't interested, she was free to say what she really thought, which made them want her all the more. And really–she'd have been nuts to say no.

     As soon as she said yes, she had a new problem: her fame preceded her. Her picture was posted at the waiters's stations in all the best places, with bonuses for spotting her. This could be delightful: "And then fireworks began shooting across the table: black truffles and white ones, foie gras, lobster, turbot, venison. The play of flavors was a symphony, as if we were the only people in the restaurant and fifty chefs were cooking just to please us. Each dish was rushed to the table the instant it was ready; each was served at the peak of perfection." But since that's not an experience most people can ever have, it's not the experience she was trying to review.

     The solution was wigs, or rather, personas. An old friend of her late mother sent her to the right consignment shop, and got her a makeup artist. Ruth became Molly, a wealthy nonentity from the Midwest, someone who could blend in to the point where the service at Le Cirque was actively bad. This was an interesting sociological study: Can a dull, poor person get a decent table? At what apparent age does a woman disappear? Or, on the other end of the power scale, why do the editors of the Times like to be seen with her?

      Even more, as she tried on different looks, Reichl found herself engaged by the psychological implications. When she wore her mother's jewelry and clothing, she understood her perhaps better than ever before. "I felt my mother's joy as I swept up the stairs, breathing in the affluent air. By the time I arrived at the top I was seeing it all as she would, thrilling to the chains rippling seductively across the windows and the deep, private underwater feel of the room."
     Plenty of things about the New York of twenty-five years ago seem both familiar and strange: smoking sections in restaurants! Pay phones! The Trump Tower as merely a gaudy temple of excess! The era of classic French restaurants was bumbling to a close, and Reichl sought out ethnic enclaves that seemed bold and new (at least for the Times.) But the gulf between the rich and the poor already yawned like the Grand Canyon, with the same blindness on the part of the wealthy that we see today.

      Reichl's predecessor as critic was somehow still glowering around the office, giving evidence that the job had a limited life span. She was missing too many dinners with her young son. And, by 1998, she had started to run out of faces. A few of her later personas were the worst kind of customers: the peevish, the demanding, or the snobbish, occasionally to the horror of her friends who went out with her. 

      Once again, blessedly, the powers that be had a better plan for her than she had for herself. Offered the editorship of Gourmet, she had the good sense to say yes. Time being what it is, you probably can't go back to these restaurants, and you probably wouldn't want to. But the recipes Reichl includes may count as compensation, and the writing itself is delicious.

Any Good Books, July 2019

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music
Glenn Kurtz (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
      As a young boy in the early seventies, Glenn Kurtz was accounted a guitar prodigy by the staff and students of his local suburban guitar school. He could play anything, it seemed, from folk tunes like "The Jolly Roving Tar" to the classical 'Segovia repertoire', with side excursions, as the decade went on, into rock and jazz. He was a musical true believer, spending his afternoons in ecstasies of Beethoven and Bach. Practicing is the story of what happened to Kurtz's dreams as he came to maturity.

      Disregarding his parents' skepticism about a career in music, Kurtz accepted admission to the New England Conservatory, which catapulted him into a whole different league. NEC is centered on Jordan Hall, a performance space surrounded by rehearsal spaces. "In every room deeply committed musicians were aspiring to concert careers. The whole structure vibrated with intensely focused ambition and the insidious undertone of competition that came with it. Every hour of the day we were immersed in one another's practicing, each contributing our part to the din." The students study music history and theory, conducting and composition, but what they are really there to do is practice, and practice some more.

      Each student, naturally, has a teacher. Kurtz's teacher took him back to the very beginning, because his technique had too much tension in it, and he had trouble getting a clean tone out of the guitar. That was going to be a severe obstacle to being the next Segovia, but so be it–he would start again. The Conservatory being what it was, he was soon schooled in another reality: "Even if I could play the melody by Brahms as beautifully as the pianist next door, Brahms didn't write for the guitar. I had thought I was a musician. Now, for the first time, I realized that I was just a guitarist. Nothing had changed. I still had to practice. But suddenly these études felt like a kind of exile." 
      The guitarists had one notable advantage in the conservatory environment: they were very popular in the gig office. Kurtz could make a modest side living playing in the background at parties and weddings–if he didn't mind playing in the background. But he coveted the concert stage, which is dominated by other instruments. Plenty of pianists since Liszt had made a concert career of the piano, and plenty of violinists since Paganini, but classical guitarists generally need some kind of day job.

     Kurtz made a sojourn in Europe after graduation, but the story was the same. "Nothing prevented me from earning a living as a classical guitarist–I could teach, I could play at cafés and weddings, perform the occasional concert. But this was not the life I had striven for. Time splintered. Exercises became agony; preparing for competitions seemed futile." So, in a fog, he came home and got a menial job in publishing. Going on to graduate school in literature, he left the guitar untouched.

     Kurtz wrote this book because he picked up his guitar again in his mid-thirties with a new attitude, and a new understanding of what it is to practice. "I'm trying not to repeat myself. My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I'm pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience." 
      It's complicated: he'll never get back some of the speed and ease he had in his twenty-one-year-old hands. But he can play every day; he can be kinder to himself, and more in the moment. Nothing is wasted, really, neither the time he gave to the guitar in his youth, nor the years when he had to put it down and face the rest of life. From now on, it's one day at a time.

Any Good Books, June 2019 Emailed.