“The only thing missing from these essays is everything.”
This sentence appears in the introduction to Out of Eden: Essays on Modern Art (1991) by the American poet W.S. Di Piero. I admire the wry mingling of humility and audacity, and it might serve as the motto for this blog and others that are big and elastic enough to include almost anything, with the tacit understanding that we’re leaving out almost everything. At Anecdotal Evidence you’ll find nothing about sports, money, nanotechnology, rap music, politics, agronomy, independent films or automobiles. I know nothing about those subjects and have little interest in learning. Later in his introduction Di Piero refers to his essays “more as contentious autobiographical advocacy than as disinterested systematizing.”
I was thinking about these things after a telephone conversation last week with my brother. He and a longtime colleague are taking over the Cleveland picture-framing business where they’ve worked for years. Neither has ever been a boss, signed somebody’s paycheck, or hired or fired a soul. At the age of 54, Ken for the first time will be the guy he’s always bitched about. I thought about helping him in the only way I can, by writing content for his shop’s web site, which is overdue for a redesign. When I mentioned this to my wife, ever the shrinking violet, she said if I’m looking for a facelift I ought to first look at Anecdotal Evidence.
It’s true: For almost three and a half years I’ve lived with a blog design I’ve never liked – color, typeface, you name it. It looks dowdy but I dread changing anything for fear of losing everything. I have no digital skills or understanding. I don’t know how to add a link to my blog roll or post an image. She thinks I ought to begin using photos but I argued that one of my ongoing themes is the centrality of the word. She said that was a load of crap. We’ll see.
My wife also suggested I add a feature called something like “On My Bedside Table.” Since I never read just one book but usually have four or five going simultaneously, and I’m always dipping into other books for the odd, half-remembered sentence, I ought to post a list of those titles, updated as needed. That’s under consideration especially as I don’t write about most of the books I’m reading and such a list might serve as a shorthand version of a commonplace book or recommendations for readers. Here are the books on my night stand, along with the Di Piero:
A Dance to the Music of Time, “First Movement,” by Anthony Powell; Poussin: Paintings, a Catalogue Raisonné, by Christopher Wright; Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, by Ronald Knox; Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman.
That final title just arrived on Monday and I hope to start reading it today. Michael Norman is a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, a former reporter for the New York Times, and a professor of narrative journalism at New York University. The couple interviewed some 400 men, half of them Americans, the rest Japanese and Filipinos. I read an excellent interview Michael Norman gave to Vice, in which he was asked what “narrative journalism” means:
“I try to teach writing students how to read like a writer. That’s based on the notion—and maybe I’m echoing Cormac McCarthy here—that all great books are built on the backs of other great books. Also, nobody can really teach you how to write. You must teach yourself.”
The echo I hear is not McCarthy but Guy Davenport, who insisted that books are always echoes of other books, sometimes covert, sometimes announced. It’s good to hear a university professor say without equivocation that writing is of necessity self-taught. And there’s another good sign that I’m in good company with Tears in the Darkness. Here’s Norman’s next response:
“As a writer, you’re alone with the page. So what I try to do is teach students to read deeply. I teach them to read at the sentence level. It takes a lot of discipline on the one hand, but it also takes a tremendous amount of desire. A lot of students like the idea of being a writer, but nobody likes the work of being a writer. I was lucky. I was trained as a poet, so I had some terrific sentence training.”
Every day I meet another book I want to read, most recently the Normans’, and every day something happens – in a book, in life – that I want to write about. My night stand is sturdy, my wife is smart and Anecdotal Evidence will soon be pretty enough to hold almost anything – maybe even pictures.