Monday, May 01, 2017

`Like Opening a Book You Never Saw Before'

A custodian the other day told me I was lying when I said I don’t hate anyone. He was at least half-sincere, but hatred implies a sense of self-importance I’ve never been able to take seriously, in myself or others. I’m as touchy and vain as the next guy, but none of that seems very important or interesting. People others hate I’m likelier to find ridiculous, irritating or tedious. Angry, hate-filled people are narrow and tiresome, and making fun of them is irresistible and deeply satisfying.

A reader alerted me to a recent interview with the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell, one of our last true men of letters. Chappell turns eighty-one later this month, and I’ve been reading his work for almost half a century. Not coincidentally, Chappell is both wise and funny. The interviewer, a former student of his, asks him, “Do you think it’s easier to write fiction or poetry inspired by people you loved, or by ones you hated?” Chappell replies:

“I’ve never really hated anybody except in the abstract, politicians and figures from history. I find it easier to admire and love people. Talking to people is like opening a book you never saw before. I like to write about what I like. One of my favorite stories is about how the Welsh clergyman Edward [sic] Edwards said to Samuel Johnson, ‘I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but I don’t know how; cheerfulness was always breaking in.’ That’s me. I always wanted to be a philosopher too, but cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

Go here for an account of Johnson’s reunion with Oliver Edwards. Chappell gets the best line: “Talking to people is like opening a book you never saw before.”

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