on Writers and the Writing Life, Book Burning, and the Fate of Ideas

Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life, edited by Katrina Roberts (Lost Horse Press)
On the Burning of Books by Kenneth Baker (Unicorn Press)
The Fate of Ideas, essays by Robert Boyers (Columbia University Press)

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As Whitman College’s host of visiting writers and impresario of readings, Katrina Roberts has welcomed over 150 poets and prose writers to campus over nearly two decades. She asked many of them to provide post-visit statements, sometimes in response to questions asked by students. Eighty-five of those prepared remarks are now published in Because You Asked, a collection offering much topical and formal variety. The writers speak is if familiar with their audience, as indeed they are, and with generosity for having been asked to come to Walla Walla in the first place.

RobertsCover.jpg“I suggested they could share responses they believe might be most valuable, challenging, amusing, or revelatory to questions (real or hypothetical) from throughout their careers,” Roberts says in her introduction. Sometimes typical subjects are addressed – about one’s background, influences, and process. But the style is “patter-blown-open, it’s hypertext, a virtual marginalia lingering around edges of words by writers perhaps you’ve loved.”

Joy Harjo begins by describing the Tahitian tattoo on her hand, created in two-and-a-half hours by the artist Roonui, whom she quotes: “ ‘Polynesian tattooing is not a simple exercise in aesthetics. Polynesians carve into their bodies the symbols of their actions, their promises, their games.’ … The tattoo represents assistance for my work.”

Jericho Brown confronts issues of identity: “I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author’s photo.”

Mark Doty quotes Eileen Miles to describe the sense that a poem’s direction has been discovered: “She says coming to the end of a poem is like that moment at a party when you know it’s time to go. ‘You get this visceral feeling,’ she says, ‘and you just go.’”

Pondering the topic of “getting stuck,” Merrill Feitel recalls a moment when she happened to open a 1950s eighth grade science book to a diagram of the phases of the moon: “I began thinking about how an emotional trajectory and satisfying storyline might correspond with the cyclical nature of the moon. After all, my characters were stuck in repeated behavior patterns, always hoping to evolve into stronger, better humans … before, well, slipping into old habits again.”

Paul Lisicky talks about the influence of music on his work (he is a trained musician) and the “destabilizing and disorienting patterns” of Bjork, Kate Bush, James Blake, Toro y Moi, and Joni Mitchell. Camille Dungy reexamines the impulses behind “frequently asked questions” and provides fresh responses to inquiries like “why don’t you write fiction?” and “do you ever experience writer’s block?” Nick Flynn is asked “How do you deal with making people sad with what you write?” while Kazim Ali answers to “But what is it you really think about God?” Some of the writers phoned in their responses with already-published bits but most of the material here is new.

Other contributors include Lydia Davis, Katie Ford, Anthony Doerr, Dorianne Laux, Terrance Hayes, Robert Olen Butler, Oliver de la Paz, Peter Ho Davies, Sherman Alexie, Stephen Burt, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, and Brenda Shaughnessy.

[Published October 21, 2015. 404 pages, $24.00 paperback]

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In February 2015, a satellite channel broadcasting from Mosul reported that ISIS had ransacked the central library and set it ablaze, destroying 100,000 books, manuscripts and periodicals. Then in March of this year, ISIS’ Diwan Al-Hisba or Morality Police posted a video showing “Christian instruction books” being flung into a bonfire. This was preceded in 2004 by the American bombing and subsequent looting of Iraq’s National Library.

ISISboneire.jpgDismal events, but not unfamiliar. Smoldering has tainted the air since the days of the ancient Mediterranean and Chinese bibliophobes. When Florentines burned the Medicis’ books in a wave of pious frenzy stoked by Savonarola, all of the city’s church bells peeled with joy. By the time of the French Revolution, book burning had become a spectacular rite; in 1790 alone, some 4,200,000 volumes and manuscripts went to ash. In 1814, the British burned down Washington’s new Library of Congress and its 3,000 books (700 of which had come from England). In 1930s Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels made book burning into a spectator sport for millions who looked on dispassionately.

There are many studies in print about book burning and censorship, but none as even tempered and sanguine as Kenneth Baker’s On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word. Its brisk accounts and handsome design signify the bibliophile’s last laugh and stylish confidence that books ultimately prevail. Furthermore, Baker widens his lens to include a range of motives for burning – that is, while every book destroyed is a book unloved, some burners act for reasons other than ideological cleansing.

BakerCover.jpgThis isn’t to say that Baker doesn’t take the flames seriously. But in light of the horrendous scale of damage through the centuries, the persistence of the book is quite amazing. Noting the Catholic Church’s centuries-long attempts to squelch expression and preserve power, he writes, “Considering the energy with which censors set about their work, it is astonishing how ineffective they have been.”

Nevertheless, On the Burning of Books deals throughout with intolerance, fanaticism, disgust, fear and ruination. He divides the destruction into six categories of burning: political, religious, war, personal, accidental, and royal – and includes a chapter at the end on “lucky escapes.” In a sense, he channels William Blades’ The Enemies of Books published in 1880, a book Baker cites as the first study to cover book burning. Blades wrote, “There are many of the forces of nature which tend to injure books; but among them all not one has been so destructive as fire … chance conflagrations, fanatic incendiarism, judicial bonfires and even household stoves, time after time, have thinned the treasures as well as the rubbish of past ages.”

“Personal Burning,” when it occurs, is often one-sided affair: Dickens, like others, tossed his correspondence into a bonfire – but the letters one has sent are usually the most incriminatory. Thomas Hardy’s autobiography was written for posthumous publication; to prepare, he read his notebooks and then destroyed them. He also routinely destroyed the drafts of his poems. Unfortunately, E.M. Forster burned his “indecent” writings. About Eliot, Baker notes that he ordered Faber’s Keeper of the Archive to burn Emily Hale’s letters: “Eliot also told a friend that ‘If I could destroy every letter I have written in my life I would do so before I die. I should like to leave as little biography as possible.’ He didn’t try very hard, since this ambition was revealed in a letter contained in the fifth volume of his correspondence which covered only 1930-21.” Perfectly matched, ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath destroyed each other’s papers. Maybe notebook burning doesn’t count as “book burning” – but Baker’s pleasure in narrating the anecdotes is his book’s secret sauce.

PurcellBook.jpgIt’s not easy to turn a book to ash. The material is compact and doesn’t invite oxygen between the pages. Cover materials, especially of older books, may not be especially combustible. The most well-known photograph taken by Boston-based photographer Rosamund Purcell is of a burnt copy of Dante’s Inferno that had been set afire by a college student to celebrate semester’s end. She plucked it out of a trash bin. The book is sorely singed but still book-like. The horror of book burning, for those who encounter the results, may be the pathetic corpses, evidence that they fought unsurrenderingly to the death.

On the Burning of Books is gorgeous, its photography of authors and artifacts generously displayed. Holding it before me, I’m reminded of a remark by Tacitus quoted in Holbrook Jackson’s classic The Fear of Books (1932):

Punitis ingeniis gliscit auctoritas or “The punishment of great talents only enhances their reputation.”

[Published October 15, 2016. 256 pages, 60 color plates, $40.00 hardcover]

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In The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals, Robert Boyers collects twelve essays that, he says in his introduction, “bear witness to the difficulty of ideas, to the troubles we have when we attempt to ask what they amount to.” Over a 50-year career as editor of Salmagundi and a professor of English at Skidmore, he has witnessed a parade of ideas entering stage left, gaining authority, slipping into disuse, and carted off stage right.

BoyersCover.jpgThe idea of “authority,” a perennial moving target, provides Boyers’ starting point for his often personal wrestling with shape-shifting notions. In the first essay, authority arrives in the form of Susan Sontag, a friend and sometimes “peremptory, nasty, condescending, self-important” antagonist who “gave no quarter to those who were easygoing or indifferent to questions of value or ambition … Susan’s authority had for me also to do with a variety of related factors, only some of them associated with her unfashionable earnestness and sometimes withering, unbearable intensity.”

For Boyers, the purpose of ideas is to trigger robust argument, refine our sensibilities, and make up our minds about reality. But in the second essay on “pleasure,” Boyers spells out what may be the impetus behind these essays:

We readily acknowledge that pleasure is one of those broad terms that lend themselves to diverse uses, and not many of us would wish to deny that it can include common or coarse and unreflective delectation. But in the realm of art and thought,, to arrive at the point at which most of us no longer take pleasure in resisting what is specious, or what is merely politically correct, is to arrive at a peculiar place. It may well be, in fact, that the vocabulary of aesthetic valuation has more and more come to seem, to most of us, inoperative, dead.

He put it more bluntly in an article for The Chronicle for Higher Education: “The very notion of diversity is now increasingly understood to refer to anything but differences of outlook, which we are urged — by the newly enlightened and militant — not to protect but to suppress and eliminate so that no delicate sensibility need be challenged or unsettled.”

Unimpeachable ideas hold interest for Boyers only insofar as they lose luster and influence. Those concepts treated here include fidelity, beauty, the political novel, the sublime, realism, psychoanalysis, modernism and judgment. About the latter:

The worst thing you can say about judgment is that it is never reliable, that it is always an expression of taste, or ideological disposition, or conditioning, or other factors that constrain a fully dispassionate assessment of the thing before you. But so what if that is true? So what if no judgment is ever entirely fair or “objective”? Some judgments are clearly better than others because there is more available evidence to support them. Others are compelling because they emerge from what seems an air-tight argument. And yet who would now claim to a perfect rightness? Who would now suppose that a judgment can be worthy only if it appears perfectly disinterested?

In other words, there is no last word. In “My ‘Others’,” Boyers qualifies the idea of “the other” and at least implicitly chides those who wield it in a facile fashion: “The other is always remote from us in at least one sense that matters. The other is far enough removed from what we take to be usual or comprehensible as to provoke us to consider – however reluctantly – who we are.”

Boyers.jpgThere are many penetrating observations and elegant turns in these pieces. Boyers’ views are leavened by a long amazement at the impermanence of our most ardent assertions. In “Politics and the Novel,” he considers a range of novelists, valorizing texts that make “matters subordinate to larger and perhaps deeper issues.” About Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter he writes, “No reader can suppose for a moment that the goal of the novel is principally to find favor with readers by upholding a virtuous position few of them would be inclined to reject. What matters to readers of such a novel is not a stance or a view but a complex way of thinking and feeling about the relation of the individual and society.”

But many readers aren’t interested in discerning the “goal” of the novel at hand, and many seek encouragement for virtuous positions they are inclined to adopt. The pressures of the times intrude on our valuations. I appreciate Boyers' concerns for the vibrance of our cultural thinking -- but I turn elsewhere for that rare mix of expansiveness and exactitude one discovers in an essayist like John Berger – an equal openness to and consideration of aesthetics and ethics, whether they are fated to birth and death and rebirth, or not.

[Published September 8, 2015. 267 pages, $35.00 hardcover]