by Campbell Geeslin
“To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies,” Freud wrote in a letter, quoted by Joseph Epstein in The Wall Street Journal. “Biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were to be had, we could not use it.”
Epstein used the quote to begin his review of On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader. “For those non-true believers of the Freudian gospel among us, we take what we can get in the way of biographical truth, always aware that even the most superior biography cannot be complete. Biographies may be authorized; they can be even impressively authoritative; but they are never, ultimately definitive.”
A volume of Epstein’s essays, Wind Sprints, will be published in April.
IMPORTANT BOOKS: Bill Bryson’s new book is The Road to Little Dribbling. In a “By the Book” interview in the Times, he was asked, “If you have to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?”
Bryson said: “Goodness that’s a big question. I remember in early adolescence reading The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, and being so enchanted with it that I wanted to become a writer, too. At about the same time I had a similar experience with The Grapes of Wrath. . . . there was something about the magic and possibility of the written word that captured me.”
WINNERS: The John Newbery Medal is “a rare honor for a picture book,” Alexandra Alter wrote in the Times last week. The award went to Matt de la Peña’s children’s book, Last Stop on Market Street. It’s about a boy’s bus ride to a soup kitchen with his grandmother.
The Caldecott Medal went to Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. The illustrations were by Sophie Blackall. The book tells about a real bear in the London Zoo. It was the inspiration for the character of Winnie-the-Pooh.
LIFT WEIGHTS: “I am constantly reading stories about the connection between weight training and cognition,” wrote Joe Queenan in the Wall Street Journal. “Apparently, regularly lifting weights keeps the brain in fighting trim. This affects everybody, not just seniors. If you pump iron a couple of times a week, it can help slow memory loss and improve cognitive skills and generally help you behave in a more intelligent fashion.”
FROM WOOLF: Rare is the week that I don’t stumble across a quote or two by Virginia Woolf that bears repeating. Last week in the Times, it was that if a writer were free, “If he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.”
ANTI-REVIEWS: “To write about a poet for others who have not yet read him is not criticism but reviewing, and reviewing is not a really respectable occupation,” wrote W.H. Auden in a 1960 review of books of poetry by Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill.
Eric Ormsby is the author of a book of poems, The Baboons of Hada. The quote above was from Ormsby’s review of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose (Vols. 1-6) in The Wall Street Journal.
Auden’s remark, Ormsby wrote, “sounds wry, a bit tongue-in-cheek in the typical English manner. After all, by 1960 Auden had been pursuing this disreputable occupation for more than 30 years. But in fact he was being serious. Auden continued: if a reviewer ‘praises a bad book—time will correct him—but if he condemns a good one the effect may be serious, for the public can discover his mistake only by reading it and that is precisely what his review has prevented them from doing.’”
AN ENDING: There was an outpouring of media attention last week to the death of David Bowie. The Times devoted pages to his performances, song writing, and paintings.
In the guardian.com, Jake Arnott wrote an article titled: David Bowie: The Man Who Read the World. Arnott is author of The Long Firm and four other novels. He said that “in the last few weeks of [Bowie’s] life, the musical Lazarus opened off Broadway . . . with his songs. He gives his own swansong on the video of the title song, an astonishing performance, seemingly from the grave.”
U-TURN: “The average human attention span [has] dropped to eight seconds, shorter than that of a goldfish,” wrote Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal column.
He was commenting on remarks made in Nicholas Carr’s bestselling The Shallows, “that our attachment to phones and computers is actively rewiring our brains, strengthening our capacity to mentally multi-task but diminishing our ability to sustain focus for prolonged periods. ‘I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.’ Mr. Carr wrote. ‘That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.”
Sacks cited Sven Birkert’s Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age as well. “We may have been engineered for the exploration of depths—our noblest first traditions were, after all, philosophy and poetry but we have made a U-turn and are now heading in the opposite direction.”
TELLING STORIES: Patrick Rothfuss, 42, is the author of a current bestseller, The Name of the Wind, a fantasy novel. It was first published in 2007.
That the impressively bearded writer is a chronic storyteller is confirmable on a dozen different online quote aggregation sites that post the same story: “My mom once lost track of me at the zoo and when she found me I was lecturing a man about the difference between dromedary and Bactrian camels. I was about three and a half.”
TOUGH GOING: Lorin Stein is editor in chief of the Paris Review and editor of its latest collection, The Unprofessionals: New American Writing From The Paris Review. In an essay in the Times on the rise of young writers who have stepped back from the tweet and the post to dig deep, he wrote: “By writing offline, literally and metaphorically, this new generation of writers gives us the intimacy, the assurance of their solitude. They let us read the word ‘I’ and feel that it’s not attached to a product. They let us read an essay, or a stanza, and feel the silence around it—the actual, physical stillness of a body when it’s deep in thought. It can’t be faked, in life or on the page. We see the opposite all around us every day, but to me, that kind of writing matters now more than ever before—precisely because it’s become so hard to do.”
RECIPE: A recipe is an unexpected find in Gregory Cowles’s “Inside the List” column of the Times. Last week he included one in writing about The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook, a bestseller by Rosanna Pansino. A doughnut waffle is made with “store-bought glazed doughnuts, heated and pressed in a home waffle iron.” Cowles also found the author “charming, in her way.”
Sante said: “Honestly, scholars bore me. I don’t have the spine to withstand colorless writing for very long, and furthermore I suspect that colorless writing is indicative of colorless thought.”
TOUGH TALK: Mark Twain could be a tough critic. A quote from a letter he wrote to William Dean Howells appeared in the Times Book Review Letters column: “To me [Edgar Allan Poe’s] prose is unreadable—like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No, there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”