Friday, January 22, 2010

Reading and Coffee

With a jug of hot coffee, paper cups, and a book in hand, my wife is off to her weekly women’s book group. That’s right, weekly. The group meets seven consecutive weeks in the fall, in the winter, and in the spring, taking a long summer break to allow the members to hike the Cascade Mountains. Each year a few of those hiking women are now leaving the group. Founders of the book group thirty-five years ago, they lived into their eighties, experienced the vicissitudes of three American decades, survived the deaths of their husbands, and read a great many books. My wife is keeper of a spreadsheet that lists books the group has read since the mid-1970s. The sheet has 850 lines.

The reading group being a social animal, a jug of coffee is its good friend. Too much is made of reading as the purpose of a book group (remember to “conscientiously separate the socializing from the discussion, ” warns a book on leading groups.) Often one or more members of my groups have not completed the scheduled reading. My readers have busy lives. According to some book club gurus, members who don’t keep up with scheduled readings should be asked to leave. Silence is also to be eliminated. I once had a group member ( I can't say "participant") who sat through six sessions on Swann’s Way and another six on Moby-Dick without saying a word. A woman who has followed me though several groups over four years rarely speaks. The veteran book group leader would have me think I failed for not “having drawn out” the silent attendee. I say, let all who want to attend come. The jug of coffee is the book group’s friend.

It is true that a group moderator must occasionally redirect a discussion that seems to be irritating the group (making sure the discussion is not irritating only the moderator). Several years ago the founder of a book group wrote to Slate’s etiquette expert, Prudence, complaining of a bully who “sighs loudly and makes faces at the suggestions other members make. Then, when we select the book, she will say things like "Well, that's not the book I would have chosen." The bully like to “ ‘play devil's advocate’ and argue for argument's sake.” Prudence recommended having coffee with the bully to inform her of the group’s “unwritten rules of civility.” Luckily, I have not needed to arrange a meeting over coffee. But the extended digression and the interesting side-topic are inevitable, even in the most cohesive groups.

I do not mean to play down the importance of reading. Sophisticated readers who have a developed a deep sense of the English literary tradition compose my book groups. Like them, I have spent much of life reading. Unlike many, I also spent years of professional training to learn and critically evaluate literature, and have directed a good chunk of energy to using the information and experience of acquiring it to teach others how to do the same. We all are avid readers.

My friend The English Teacher is devoting himself to teaching reading to high school students, enormously difficult as he is working with teenagers to whom English is their second language. Your time couldn’t be better spent than reading his wide-ranging, thoughtful essays, whether they explore the problem of teaching reading to the gap or comment on Hamlet or remark on the value of “incompetent reading.” He helps students learn to read at a rudimentary level, knowing that skill may lead to more satisfying forms of reading. I hope to help others further enrich their already sophisticated reading. Perhaps my comparison is an erroneous. Still, to lead a group through a discussion of a book is not to teach, whatever permutations one wishes to assign to teaching. In an essay on “The Decline of the English Department”, William C. Chace writes of a time when

We began to see, as we had not before, how … books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

Part, a large part, of getting to know a literary tradition and a historical tradition requires a rigorous approach to reading that book groups don’t admit. The goal of the fellowship I received in graduate school was to send me into the world to teach, to help others understand the traditions that inform our literature. On second thought, I hardly believe I am doing so. No, I go off with the jug of coffee to my book groups so I can participate in genial literary discussions, happily.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Premature Burial

The day was cloudless. Standing on a rise, my nephew’s wife was remembering her husband when I heard her ask us to join her. My brother, his living children, and I walked slowly up the hill, behind the gathered mourners. She offered a chance to speak. My living nephew said a few halting words, then his sister. I tried to form words, but could only see a reclining figure frozen upon a crypt’s lid.

Summers ago, my family visiting from a distant state, we had followed him across the property to the stream, beating our way through tall grasses and thick alder along the stream bank. A photograph from that time shows him smiling, his older daughter on his back, his younger in the arms of his wife. Soon he would not walk. His wife guided the mourners down the hill to a stream. On this chilly cloudless day fall frost had cut down the meadow grasses. I watched her pour him into the shallow water. After the others had returned to the house, I looked at his bone dust lying on the streambed. Even in death he wouldn’t move.


The meeting ended early. A call to United yielded one remaining seat on the commuter flight home. He would have to hurry. There was time, but none to waste, so he was relieved that traffic moved along. He deposited the rental car (express checkout, he still had time), then walked briskly to the boarding area. A United gatekeeper greeted him by name with a boarding pass. Not until he was onboard did he see his seat was a window in the last row.

He made his way down the aisle, stuffed his bag into the overhead. Releasing a seat belt extender, an obese man lumbered to a stand to let him in.

He looked out onto the tarmac, glistening from a late afternoon squall. Eyes closed, he imagined the first open space that came to mind. Andros. He was on the open water, bone fishing. He could see sunlight bounce along the far-reaching rippled sea surface. I can do this, he told himself. Sweat broke out.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready to pull away from the gate. We’ve closed the cabin door and ask that you turn off all electronic devices.”

He had ignored the words countless times. Now they propelled him out of the seat.

“Sir, you must sit down. Sir, sit down

“Open the door. Please. I have to get off.” It was impossible to return to that seat.

“Take mine,” suggested a passenger in first class. Reaching for bills, he saw the passenger wave away the offer and sat, beyond shame, not caring a damn about the gawkers.


Berenicë is full of vitality when the Edgar Allan Poe story of that name opens. The narrator, on the other hand, is suffering from a sickness. “I, ill of health, and buried in gloom—she agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy.” As the story unfolds, she becomes progressively more ill, dying toward the end, he more obsessed and gloomy. Bernice’s fall into illness sets the plot in motion; the narrator’s derangement fuels it.

In “Berenicë”, as in many Poe stories, ideas seem to bring into being the worlds his narrators inhabit. To say that a Poe character misperceives the world because of a psychological (or psychoanalytical) disorder is to diminish Poe’s achievement. “Berenicë” holds an epistemological problem; the world becomes whatever a character might imagine.

Poe inverts Locke’s argument that sensation creates ideas. Bernicë’s teeth are “des idées” which the narrator coveted “so madly!” Because ideas generate the real, we know as soon as he begins to obsess that something gruesome will result (another inversion, turning Romantic contemplation into gothic horror).

At the end of the story, there is a leap from the mind of the narrator to the effect his mind has had on the world. A knock of the door. A servant enters, bringing with him the world the narrator has transformed. Bernice’s grave has been violated. The servant adds another horrifying detail: Berenicë was found alive in the open grave. The narrator notices his own clothes, blood-stained and muddy. A box falls to the floor, spilling Berenicë’s teeth. The reader need not try to work out the logic.

Poe wrote two other masterpieces that contain premature burials, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” None are from the point of view of the buried. Only the mind affecting the burial mattered to Poe.


“I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep,” writes the historian Tony Judt, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease.

I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward...

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed…

No children’s prayers or pleasant stories here at Tony Judt’s bedtime hour, he tells us. “...and there I lie, trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.”


However infrequently or often, we fear losing control – of our jobs, our health, our means of negotiating through the years ahead. The claustrophobe acutely feels his precariousness. In the last row of the airplane, the window seat is indifferent to the man bolting from it.