Wednesday, August 02, 2017

`When They Are Trying to Be Unusual'

On a heavy old wooden bookcase on the fourth floor of the library, an anonymous graduate student has deposited the contents of his study carrel, with a note instructing library-goers to take what they want. Two shelves are filled with paperbacks written in Spanish. Most of the space is stacked with such academic journals as The Comparatist and South Central Review. I’d almost given up when I uncovered the Winter 1987 and Summer 1988 issues of The American Scholar. They date from the journal’s glory years, when it was edited by Joseph Epstein and it was possible to contentedly read most issues cover to cover. (When was the last time you did that with any magazine or journal?) The cover price thirty years ago was $4.75 and $5.

Like all issues of The American Scholar from that era, both come with an essay by Aristides, Epstein’s transparent nom de plume. The first has a good title, “The Bore Wars.” It’s an anatomy of the various ways people choose to be tedious. In it, Epstein rolls out Sydney Smith’s ever-useful bon mot on Macaulay:  “He has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.” The issue from 1988 includes Epstein’s “Calm and Uncollected,” about the human appetite for collecting things. As a features writer for newspapers, I sub-specialized in writing about collectors and their collections. One man in upstate New York collected the coins and currency issued by leper colonies (to reduce the risk of contagion). Another collected sand from around the world, attractively displayed in labeled glass jars of uniform size and shape. On the subject of remaining a reader while resisting the temptation to become a collector of books (a subject close to my heart), Epstein writes:

“. . . I do not look into book catalogues; I stay out of used-book stores, which I consider, for the bookish, the intellectual equivalent of pool halls; when I require a book for something on which I am working, I prefer in most cases to use library books. I give books away, I sell books, I try to be unsentimental in my decisions about keeping books, not permitting myself to believe that because I happen to have read a book I am justified in keeping it. And still the books roll in; and still the books pile up. They multiply like rabbits, descend like locusts, covering everything.”

Each essay, poem and review in both issues I plan to reread. In the first, C.H. Sisson writes about Vauvenargues, and quotes the eighteenth-century French moralist: “People don't say much that is sensible when they are trying to be unusual.” The maxim can be applied to journals and magazines, and much else in the human realm. Take the recent fate of the Sewanee Review, once edited by Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle. Almost overnight, with the arrival of a new editor, The Sewanee Review has turned into drivel. I’ve let my long-time subscription lapse. I used to think Clark Coolidge held the title for Worst Poet in History. I’ve revised my thinking. The award now goes to Mary Ruefle, who was given the 2017 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry by The Sewanee Review. There is a technical problem with permitting her to usurp Coolidge’s title. Strictly speaking, she’s not a poet. She writes drab, egocentric prose. Come to think of it, so did Coolidge. So do most of the writers who have shanghaied a once-great journal.

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