The Age of Writing – 2

I’ve been thinking about the matter of age as regards writers and other creative types. Partly, that’s a response to, well, getting older. Some of it is about seeking out younger writers to follow, something a student of contemporary literature must always do. But a big part of it is watching the generation I admired as an up-and-comer in the academy grow old and, too steadily, leave us. For now, though, let’s just focus on the growing old part. It’s really interesting.

This is, I believe, the first time in history that so many writers have continued to be productive so deep into life. Three things prompted this musing. The first was learning recently that one of my favorites, English poet Geoffrey Hill, died earlier this summer at age 84. Never heard of him? Not surprising. He was the least known major poet one can imagine, especially stateside, where his horde of fans probably numbered in double digits, possibly low double digits. Another was hearing Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s great gifts to the world, interviewed this afternoon about her new graphic novel. What a thing to produce as a first effort at age 77. The third item was picking up the latest volume of poems by W. S. Merwin, The Moon before Morning, published in 2015, when he was a mere 88. His first volume appeared in 1952. That means he published books of poetry while Harry Truman and Barack Obama were in office, along with every president in between. Who knows, he may grace another administration. This is something to celebrate.

So is the continued productivity of so many great artists into their late seventies and eighties. It’s partly improved health care, partly fewer really bad life choices (less smoking and heavy drinking, no absinthe), but whatever the cause, we have a lot of celebrating to do: poets Gary Snyder (86), John Ashberry (89), Galway Kinnell (87 when he died in 2014), novelists Toni Morrison (85), Atwood (although she’s just a kid), and Doris Lessing (94 when she died in 2013), and directors Woody Allen (81) and Clint Eastwood (85). I know I have missed quite a few, but you get the idea. I remember in grad school a professor telling us that William Butler Yeats was one of the very few great poets of old age; it was true, but he only lived to not quite 74. Good for a century ago but hardly notable these days.

Coming Attractions?


It’s really happening. I got my copies today. Coming to better bookstores September 13. How will you know if they’re better? Well, do they have the book or not?

The Age of Writing – 1

I think this will be the first of three observations about writers at different stages of their lives and careers. This has been on my mind for a while but was brought to the fore by The Writer’s Almanac this morning, in which Garrison Keillor noted that that the poet Rita Dove was born on this date (August 28) in 1952. So we share a birth year (I’m slightly older) and a home state, Ohio, although she grew up in Akron and I near Dayton. Moreover, she attended Miami University, which I considered seriously, since it was less than an hour from home.

That got me thinking about writers of my generation, and how they are rapidly becoming the senior figures in the world of letters. My definition of that “generation” here is that they have to remember the Sixties as fairly young people, which means that in 2016 they range from their mid-fifties to early seventies. As a group, they continue to write faster than I can read. I’m mostly caught up on a few, having read the latest books by Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwen and only being one or two behind on Louise Erdrich, Paul Muldoon, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Toibin. With others, such as Tim O’Brien and Ms. Dove, I’m sadly in arrears and need to catch back up.

Here’s the thing, though: for me, they are still the hot young properties, doing new and daring things. And they are–hot, new, daring. Just less young than we all once were. I hope they and I–and you, of course–continue in that vein for a good long time.

Love the One You’re With

When you’re in my business, you visit a lot of bookstores. Big. Small. New. Used. Also shelves in department stores, kiosks, stalls, and library clearances. I’ve been to the bi-coastal giants, the Strand in Lower Manhattan and Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Liked them a lot. And also the decidedly non-gigantic Grolier Poetry Bookshop right off Harvard’s campus, where I once spent a bundle of money and flew out with much heavier baggage. I frequented Border’s when there was only one, in downtown Ann Arbor, and later visited various lesser relatives in sundry towns. I’ve also been to half a dozen different bookshops in AA over the years. There are lovely bookstores in Petoskey (where I once gave a talk at McLean and Eakin) and Traverse City (where I aspire to). And let’s not even start on those emporiums of textbooks, college bookstores, which I often seek out.

But we’re talking love here, and for me there was only one. When I moved to East Lansing in 1975, there was no serious source for books in town–hence the acquaintance with Border’s at that other school down the highway. And then something magical happened. A former English professor started Jocundry’s Books and changed the city. It didn’t hurt that it was virtually next door to the crumbling barn that housed the English department or that it was right across from my favorite lunch spots. They got the right books in and hired excellent people to advise readers when the need arose. They had events in-house and sponsored others out on the street. When tragedy struck and the owner and two employees were killed in a plane crash (coming home, if memory serves, from a booksellers’ conference), the mourning was widespread. When they moved to newer digs on the main drag, it was an event, although many of us wondered if the success would buoy them up above the higher rent. It didn’t, and a host of factors led to the closing down of a cherished spot.

The store was replaced by a Barnes & Noble, which was actually very nice for a chain store. I eventually forgave them for being one of that “host of factors” that led to Jocundry’s demise. But it, too, closed after a number of years, leaving downtown East Lansing a new bookstore desert (we do have an excellent used bookseller, Curious Books, which has outlived all competitors). There is a B&N on the far side of Lansing, but it’s in a Mall and can never really be my store. There are also two branches of Schuler Books, a Grand Rapids-based independent, in neighboring towns, and they are very nice. I have friends and even former students there, and I have learned to love them, even if I can’t get to them via an easy bike ride as I could to Joc’s. Over the last two decades, we have all seen many bookstores and chains go dark, which is always a cause for sadness. Still, one never quite gets over that first heartbreak anymore than over that first new love. If your town still has a bookstore, embrace it, support it, and love it for the small miracle that it is.


July 4 Ramblings

I’m a day late here, but some observations about the Fourth of July are in order, especially since this one ended in a zero (240, for those of you keeping score at home). One of the surprising coincidences of the date is that two of the early heroes of the republic, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died not only on Independence Day but on the same one, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary. You really couldn’t make this stuff up. As it happens, they died on the 22nd birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who really is an outstanding candidate to be born on the Fourth of July.

And under the heading of no coincidences here, Walt Whitman published first edition of his great hymn of liberty, Leaves of Grass, on the great day in 1855. If, long after we vanish, someone wants to know about the American character, the American voice (what he called his “barbaric yawp”), they could do no better than to ignore everything else and read that poem. Like the poet, it is vast; it contains multitudes. Whitman’s maneuverings to publish his poem on the holiday equal those of James Joyce to publish Ulysses on his fortieth birthday. And why not? It’s the perfect date for such an appearance.

Finally, twenty-eight years ago, National Public Radio began its own tradition of presenting the entire Declaration of Independence read by the anchors, reporters, and commentators. Those early years had great voices–Red Barber, John Ciardi, Kim Williams, along with Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards, among others. Of those, only Stamberg appears on this year’s installment. The result is always incredibly moving; at least, it is to me. Here’s a link to the current model: At the end of those early readings, co-host Bob Edwards always noted that King George wrote in his diary that “Nothing of any importance happened today.” Feel free to insert your own response noises.

Italian Cover

Italian cover - NovelsThe gorgeous Italian edition of How to Read Novels Like a Professor is just out. Clearly, this is the classiest cover I’m ever going to get. The book also sounds better in Italian, even if I can’t understand it and, in any case, they couldn’t do anything about the content.

On Limestone

On these warm days of late spring and summer, I’m sometimes reminded of the dump trucks that rumbled down our road from the local aggregates quarry. Many operations are sand and gravel; ours was crushed limestone, and those trucks were delivering, among other things, stone and dust mixed for rough paving of driveways and dog kennels, including ours. My dad favored, if memory serves, “stone-dust 20,” the number indicating the size of the stone in the mix. Lime was also a major component in the makeup of some of the richest farmland anywhere. Corn and wheat shot out of the ground as if launched Imagine my delight, then, at discovering a poem by W. H. Auden called “In Praise of Limestone.” Sure, it’s a critique of Romanticism and a justification for his own doubting, questioning sensibility, but beyond that Auden clearly understands something about human nature and about landscapes that are fit places for us to inhabit:

In Praise Of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.