With these lighter days a concomitant
urge to scrutiny arrives. Signing in,
my motivation palls, pusillanimous.
Are we to take it inside the house?
I have to go.
Tell me another dream. The long events surface
wider, farther apart, like autumn breakers.
Birds are suddenly there. The house of cards
on sand falters, fatally. I’m elated.
You never know how things work out
except through “sleight” of hand, sometimes.
I’m worried about knowing later.
The high-school principal killed his star student,
for instance. Feeling competent,
they quashed him. Until he wins the crisis
we can’t promote it. Keep that rodent away.
What have you seemed to do?
Do interesting things well done and may
spring chasten you. We had everything in mind.
Everything softballed, wound up on my back porch.
It’s okay, though. Keep us on your docket. Cut through the…
Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” What is the nature of this need? What would happen if it wasn’t met? We might also ask: why does Franzen refer to complex stories? And why is it important not to be interrupted by Twitter and Facebook? Are such interruptions any worse than an old land line phone call, or simply friends and family buzzing around your writing table? Jane Austen, we recall, loved to write in domestic spaces where she was open to constant interruption.
Do we need to finish books? Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it? I ask the question because this is happening to me more and more often. Is it age, wisdom, senility? I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?
“Nothing ever changes” may be one of the truest things ever said. Certainly, life was different when our grandparents were young, in many ways far worse and in other ways far better—as they never failed to inform us every time some new, faddish invention came along. But despite all the predictions of social reformers and utopian thinkers, human behavior seems to have remained pretty much the same throughout recorded history. The four-thousand-year old admonition in the Code of Hammurabi that the strong be prevented from oppressing the weak, or Thomas Moore’s observation in the sixteenth century that society was a conspiracy of the rich to defraud the poor, are not only perfectly understandable today, but are aimed at the same problem that has brought demonstrators to the streets from Wall Street to Oakland. You’d think that the outsourcing of millions of jobs, the taking of away people’s homes, the stealing of their pensions, and the making of fortunes out of their tragedies would make Americans remember their family’s histories, the fact that so many of us started off as poor or persecuted. But, obviously, that’s not the case. It’s because we remember so little and prefer to be told fairy tales about our nation’s past that nothing ever fundamentally changes with us.