In his introduction to Rosenfeld’s Lives, which carries the overheated subtitle Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing, Steven J. Zipperstein writes:
“Few who write today, few who live amid books that they read so that they might write better, can overlook the assault on reading at the heart of contemporary culture – with its emphasis on the visual, its distrust of intellection, which itself is, arguably, among the more powerful legacies of the last century. Never, it seems, has the role of the writer felt so at odds with what is around us – despite superb writing that seems to speak to fewer and fewer. Other writers have in the past, of course, feared that theirs were times when the fate of literacy was at risk and such concerns have proven unfounded, off-kilter. No matter: now this sense of uncertainty feels warranted. For those, like myself, who early on found coherence in the world around us mostly through books, the uncertainty surrounding their fate today, their increasing marginality, feels ominous, one more way in which the earth is heating up right under our feet.”
Zipperstein writes in the context of Isaac Rosenfeld’s book-smitten life, one that embodies a very American story – a wunderkind of learning, early literary fame, frustration, self-sabotage (not alcohol, for once), early death and, as Zipperstein’s subtitle suggests, oblivion. Rosenfeld, in the words of friends and admirers, was a golden boy. More than that, he was a wonderful writer of fiction, essays and criticism, and has been undeservedly erased from the collective literary memory. Into this story Zipperstein inserts his unhappy digression that, in the hands of a less gifted writer with a less compelling story to tell, might have come off as a cynical non sequitur. Instead, he’s an elegiac Jeremiah. I share his sense that we may already have passed the point of no return for language, literacy and the centrality of books.
Zipperstein’s words came back to me as I read an e-mail from a reader who identified himself as an “assistant professor of communications” at a large university in the Midwest. I felt something like compassion for his thwarted sense of rage, though not too compassionate. He stammered, even in print. To his credit he used no profanity, unless “elitist” and “snob” are profane. I’ll spare the details except for the list he made of “writers you mention over and over that no one ever heard of, ” including Henry Green, Geoffrey Hill, Zbigniew Herbert, L.E. Sissman, George Borrow, A.J. Liebling, Whitney Balliett and, for the sake of symmetry, Isaac Rosenfeld. I suppose I should be flattered he has read Anecdotal Evidence so attentively.
What strikes me as peculiar to our age is my reader’s lack of embarrassment in proclaiming his ignorance. He inverts snobbery and implies that his lack of broad reading is a virtue, whereas I came from a time and place where we lied about the books we had read. Now a person charged with educating young people can boast of his provinciality. Zipperstein’s notion of reading books “so that [we] might write better” no doubt would sound quaint to my reader. He quotes in his e-mail a single writer – Adorno.
Zipperstein writes, “Never, it seems, has the role of the writer felt so at odds with what is around us – despite superb writing that seems to speak to fewer and fewer.” The serious writer – they endure – is not so much “at odds” with readers and critics as the object of their indifference, non-recognition and consignment to oblivion. The provincial obsession with the contemporary at the expense of tradition, and the passive accession to vulgar tastes, means libraries “purge” essential volumes and tenured professors read fewer books than the dedicated common readers among their students. These lines, immediately following those quoted above, suggest the ultra-bookish Rosenfeld was no cloistered monk of letters:
“Books were for Rosenfeld a way out, the only credible way to clarify the dissonance, the incoherence, the furies of life. But he knew well how they could help one to hide. He insisted on confronting the limitations of a life spent with them; he refused to see books as the only way life might be understood, while, at the same time, acknowledging his undying reliance on them.”