Friday, December 21, 2007

December Part Three: We Know Not the Smallest Fraction of What There is to Know

I have three things to write about, and they don't exactly go together, so I'm going to write about them in three parts.

On Wednesday at lunch, I started Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. I finished it at 10:30 at night. The memoir is about the year after her husband died, and I didn't notice till I was halfway through that there were some blue letters in the otherwise black-lettered title: J O H N, her husband's name. For some reason that made me sadder than anything else.

It perhaps goes without saying that Didion's writing is almost perfect. The way she describes grief pretty much is: the way irrationality becomes your state of being, the way other people simply cannot understand. Didion doesn't offer comfort or wishful thinking; she doesn't believe in God or an afterlife. But for some reason I felt better...more informed, maybe?...about death after reading the book. I'll let it speak for itself for a couple of passages.

One of the ideas she talks about is, basically, that every death is sudden:

In each of those long illnesses the possibility of death had been in the picture....Yet having seen the picture in no way deflected, when it came, the swift empty loss of the actual event....Each of them had been in the last instant alive, and then dead. (p. 149)

She also talks about the absolute void of no longer having someone around:

I am a writer. Imagining what someone would say comes as naturally as breathing. Yet on each occasion these pleas for his presence served only to reinforce my awareness of the final silence that separated us....We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know. (p. 196)

Finally, the way she starts the ending to the book is perfect.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.
(p. 226)

All excerpts from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

December Part Two: Illicit Collection

I have three things to write about, and they don't exactly go together, so I'm going to write about them in three parts.

Before the semester ended, I read this short story by Sherman Alexie called "The Search Engine." (I'm actually not quite sure why it's called this; I'll have to think about it a little more.) The second scene in the story takes place in the library, where Corliss, the protagonist, is looking for a book. I include excerpts here.

She endured a contentious and passionate relationship with the library. The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she'd been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf. an impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death. She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks. (p.5)

This is pretty much how I feel when I walk into a library or a bookstore; I want to read every book. (Well, maybe not every book.) There's an inescapable sense of despair, too, that I never will.

Later, Corliss goes to check out the book:

The librarian was a small woman wearing khaki pants and large glasses. Corliss wanted to shout at her: Honey, get yourself some contacts and a pair of leather chaps! Fight your stereotypes!
[Corliss asks how many books never get checked out]
"We're talking sixty percent of them. Seriously. Maybe seventy percent. And I'm being optimistic. It's probably more like eighty or ninety percent. This isn't a library, it's an orphanage."

The librarian spoke in a reverential whisper. Corliss knew she'd misjudged this passionate woman. Maybe she dressed poorly, but she was probably great in bed, certainly believed in God and goodness, and kept an illicit collection of overdue library books on her shelves. (pp. 7-8)

I really like this passage, for many (perhaps obvious) reasons. Does it matter, for instance, that most library books are never checked out? Maybe, maybe not. Also: it seems true that librarians have a hard time remembering to return library books. If I move back to Louisville, it's going to be a problem, because I still have fines on my LFPL card.

Let me also just say for the records: I don't even own khaki pants or large glasses. As for Corliss's other speculations about this librarian, I won't get into them. I won't, for example, make any unsubstantiated claims that librarians are really good in bed compared to those in other professions.

Excerpts from "The Search Engine," in Sherman Alexie's book Ten Little Indians. New York: Grove Press, 2003.

December Part One: Wait! Wait! Don't Judge Me

I have three things to write about, and they don't exactly go together, so I'm going to write about them in three parts.

First of all. Last night I went to a taping of Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me (the NPR news quiz...if you didn't know). It's taped every Thursday night in Chicago, and every time I've been in town I've tried to go...this time I actually planned ahead. And I thought you might like to know some of the gory details.

1. I saw Peter Sagal while we were in line to get into the auditorium. He looks like he's lost some weight, and he had a really nice coat on.
2. The auditorium isn't that big; I guess there were about 500 people in there (that's what the house manager said).
3. Carl Kasell is not amused. He was so professional the whole time while Peter and the panelists (Roxanne Roberts, Charlie Pierce, and Adam Felber) cracked up. Once in a while, Carl would smile, and you'd know that was a good joke.
4. They taped almost an hour and forty-five minutes worth of show - it will be interesting to see what ends up in the edited one-hour-long version.
5. After the show, Peter, Carl, and the panelists all roamed around the lobby. I met Peter and Adam Felber - and got Adam's novel Schrodinger's Ball signed. Adam Felber is kind of cute in this music-geek kind of way. The not-my-job guest was Herbie Hancock, and Adam was totally rapt, and asked about this specific keyboard he'd played.

Basically, it was an NPR dork's dream, and I think I may have creeped out Peter Sagal by telling him that my roommate and I looked up pictures of NPR personalities online this summer. What more could I ask for?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Quick, the year in twenty words or less

Quick update. I'm starting my winter break tomorrow, and I promise I'm going to write about libraries and books - specifically about a passage about libraries in a short story by Sherman Alexie. So STAY TUNED.

But for now, dear readers, I thought I'd share with you a little compulsive exercise I underwent. I was flipping through my journal and realized that each month of 2007 really could be summarized in a couple of words. It's an interesting, if somewhat simplified, thing to do; I recommend it. So to give you even more of a sense than you already had of what the year was like, here you go. The year in review as far as books and music go will probably follow at a somewhat later date.

January: hope
February: upheaval
March: stress
April - mid-May: leaving
end of May - June: revolution
July: evaluation
August: uncertainty/longing
September: truth
October: being taken care of
November: punctuated equilibrium
December: complicated

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Three (hopeful?) thoughts

I'll really do anything not to work on my final presentation, it seems. I just wanted to post three quotations I've come across today; in some way, they each center around the "maybe" feeling I talked about yesterday. Combined, I feel like they should unlock a question for me. Perhaps when I have more time to think. In any case, they're interesting.

1. "I'll think of it as needle and thread.
Or a breathing remnant
restored to a living cloth.
Or scissors
trimming lament
to allow for everything I don't know."
-Li-Young Lee, from "Little Ache"

2. "The happy ones are almost always also vulgar;
happiness has a way of thinking
that's rushed and has no time to look
but keeps on moving, compact and manic...."
-Patrizia Cavalli, from an untitled poem, translated by Geoffrey Brock

3. "...only realization gives indubitable proof of what is possible."
-Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex

Quotes 1 & 2 come from the December issue of Poetry(Volume 191, Number 3).