Tuesday, July 21, 2009

`You Must Teach Yourself'

“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.


Anonymous said...

I will be sure to read Norman's Tears in the Darkness. The last book I read on the Bataan Death March and the experiences of POWs in the Philippines in WWII was Hampton Sides' excellent Ghost Soldiers.


William A. Sigler said...

dowdy is good. Unless you can procure the multi-colored wave pattern that used to adorn the insides of leather books, I say leave your brand alone. As for pictures, can automobiles, agronomy and Michael Jackson be far behind? The mere thought of muddled purity pains me.

It's the way everything manages to get included (and miraculously connected) within the constraints of the form that makes this blog so special.

That's quite a July Inventory. I guess you're feeling better.

"Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,
We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists."

R. T. said...

I enjoy the Spartan clarity and precision of your ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE (with the word Spartan being used only in the most flattering sense), and--were I in your shoes--I would be hesitant to change your blog's format and presentation. Isn't there a trite maxim: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But, of course, that is only one person's point of view, and I understand how change can sometimes be a refreshing opportunity to try out different things. Whatever you decide, I'll hang in there with you and read regularly.

elberry said...

i must admit the hideousness of your blog design has nagged at me from time to time, but i just assumed you liked hideousness, for perverse reasons of your own.

i'd recommend spending an hour fiddling about with your blog settings and reading the FAQ and Help features on Blogger. There's nothing that an intelligent man can't figure out if he puts his back into it. Pictures can be good - pictures of writers are always interesting, if you can find them.

The Cormac line is from an interview, where he said something like "the ugly truth is that books are made out of other books", i believe in relation to his Faulknerisms.

మెహెర్ said...

“contentious autobiographical advocacy”

That’s what I like about this blog. Before you ask me, “who the hell are you to like my blog”: I am a 26 year old reader from India. I write my blog in Telugu, a language you probably never even heard of. (I don’t have much command on English language.) I love reading, but have no clue about what to read. So many false bottoms waste your time. Your blog provides me with so many good books, and writers. I trust your taste completely.

And I don’t see your blog posts individually as “essays”; I see the whole blog as an ongoing infinite essay about what reading is all about.

I don’t find any fault with your blog design either. In fact, after seeing it, I preferred the same template for my blog. Yes, it gives “centrality” to the word. Fancy templates distract the reader from the prose. Since you have a beautiful prose style to boast off, I don’t think your blog needs any other embellishment. Yeah, I always thought some photos of writers or book covers would have made it more pleasant looking; but that is just about it.

If you want to change it anyway, simple Googling can give you lots of assistance. Whatever you do, we won't stop reading it anyway. Keep blogging.


mira said...

This place is a refuge from the barrage of images and clutter at all those other sites. I think of it as one of the "Simple gifts" -- "a place just right." Coming here gives me the same feeling I experience when I turn off the TV and settle down to read a book.

Still, a bit of a change might be good -- as long as you keep your integrity and promise not to go Hollywood on us.

Just don't lose sight of the words.

ken kurp said...

Don't go changing, to try and please me
You never let me down before

Ms Baroque said...

Hi Patrick, very impressed to see progress so far. If I were you I'd put the bedside table feature in your sidebar, where you can keep it and update it as necessary - kind of like a digital bedside table!

People are leaving lovely comments, too. Of course Anecdotal Evidence is wonderful, it;s a tonic, and the main body of content needs no tinkering. As for the rest, it's like changing the cushion covers or putting up the summer curtains.