When times get hard—and the news, I think it’s fair to say, has sucked of late—my reading, like everyone else’s, gets reactive. Which makes sense. When it’s a damp, drizzly November in your soul, when the Gomerts and Gosars are in the ascendant and two-star generals travel the land informing cheering crowds that the government is putting vaccines in their salad dressing, when cowardice and imbecility vie for the crown and cruelty is the judge, it’s only natural, like Ishmael, to want to either confront the world or escape it.
I’ve been doing my fair share of both this past year, and on the chance that there are a few others out there who lately find they need enough wine to float a whaling ship in order to face the headlines, or who’ve been wondering what delights the new variant might have in store for us, I offer the following as both club and balm. Knowledge and narcotic.
Two quick caveats: First, I’ve limited myself to titles readily available in English. Second, my daughter points out that a good number of the writers I mention are white, male, possibly grumpy, and occasionally dead. True, enough. Inquiries will be made.
Maybe a year ago, when the world was still young and I harbored the illusion that the Trump contagion had been brought under control, I picked up Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the largely Moscow-fed river of disinformation sweeping us into the post-fact world. I chose the right book. Pomerantsev, a Kjev-born, British journalist, knows whereof he speaks, and he writes with a fearless, clear-eyed gusto that offers—to me, anyway—a kind of existential hope. People this smart (and uncompromising, and relatively young) are a weapon in the fight, and knowing they’re out there holding the line can make a difference when the current begins to seem overwhelming.
Speaking of those moments when you feel like you’re drowning in the River of Perpetual Crap, context, by which I mean history, can help—a lesson I learned from my dad, a journalist who was with the Czech resistance during the German occupation, and who managed to escape after the Communist coup just as the doors were slamming shut for the next 40 years. After the revolution, whenever he and I would share a drink in some café in Prague and I’d find myself bitching about the latest injustice or the rise of some new political parasite, my dad would acknowledge the point, then hold it up to this time or that one when things had been worse. Often much worse.
Maybe eight months ago, spiraling into a catatonic depression most likely brought on by finding Matt Gaetz’s face on my newsfeed one time too many, I decided to channel dad and lay down the bucks on Andrew Roberts’s cinderblock-sized biography of Churchill, enigmatically titled – wait for it—Churchill. Churchill, as we all know by now, was a flawed man and an indisputable racist of the paternalistic variety, but rarely (with the possible exception of Lincoln) has anyone fit the needs of their time as perfectly as he did. If Roberts can’t help burrowing into the legislative weeds now and then (I skimmed some bits) that doesn’t take away from his accomplishment, or the fact that there’s something extraordinary (and exhilarating) about watching the storm building over Europe, and knowing that Churchill, of all men, is waiting in the wings.
For those who still harbor some doubts that the 2016 presidential election initiated a slow-motion coup in America, I’d suggest putting on your big boy pants and reading Claire Sterling’s The Masaryk Case—a book that should come with a warning label from the surgeon general. I did (I must have been feeling good after the Churchill bio) and I’m still recovering. Sterling, a meticulous, gutsy journalist, offers us a kind of detective story (Who threw the beloved Minister of Foreign Affairs out of his window in Prague?) while reconstructing the Communist coup of 1948 in Czechoslovakia in all its appalling (and eerily familiar) detail. Historical analogies are notoriously tricky, of course, and the United States in 2021 is light years removed from Czechoslovakia in 1948, but most readers will find the parallels between the Moscow-orchestrated takeover of Czechoslovakia’s democratic government in the late ’40s and our past administration’s tactics impossible to miss. Democracies, Sterling makes clear, don’t die accidentally—there’s a process, a protocol of subversion maybe best expressed by Lenin (a particular favorite of Steve Bannon’s, by the way): “We have to use any ruse, dodge, trick, cunning, unlawful method, concealment and veiling of the truth,” to achieve our purpose. Sound familiar?
Timing, they say, is everything in life. I finished Sterling’s book smack in the middle of a pandemic lockdown in Prague (always the perfect recipe for good cheer), and promptly grabbed for the nearest literary sapling. For a while, since the natural world has always been my refuge, I binged on Gerald Durrell—Birds, Beasts and Other Relatives, A Zoo in My Luggage, etc.—reveling in his exotic locales and gentle, broad-brush humor, and then, apparently working my way back to the womb, cycled through a number of books I remembered loving as a kid, among them a wholly sweet story by Emily Neville called It’s Like This, Cat, about a 14-year-old boy growing up in 1960’s Brooklyn whose life takes a turn when he adopts (or is adopted by) an alley cat. I also re-read (and read aloud, on YouTube) Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows because I needed a magical story about a friendship between a rat and a mole, because, as a confirmed Pantheist, Grahame’s book speaks to my soul, and because the woods and streams inhabited by Mr. Toad promised to take me far from the world inhabited by men like Roger Stone.
It helped, but only so much, probably because you can’t go from Stalin’s purges to The Wind in the Willows without getting the bends. I needed a middle road, something that would allow me some breathing room without making me feel like a kid hiding under the covers.
Everybody achieves equilibrium—or tries—differently. For some, balancing the times (we’re still talking books here, not booze or binge-watching Buffy) might mean re-reading Austen, or Chandler, or all the Harry Potter books. Others, like my wife, might find that air-pocket of sanity by re-reading David Copperfield (she also read a lot of Agatha Christie). Whatever gets you there.
For me, the books I came to next, the books I needed, shared the common denominator of what I call edge; think Richard Yates’s novels, for example, or any of the nonfiction books by Ernst Pawel—The Poet Dying or The Nightmare of Reason. In an age increasingly dominated by genuine idiots as well as those only feigning, I found the company of writers who would never humor fools invigorating, heartening, above all, necessary. I was craving intelligence, sentences with the crisp authority of a carpenter’s plane on cedar. Fatty sentimentality wouldn’t cut it—whatever decency there was to be found, whatever territory the heart claimed for its own, would have to be fairly won.
The first book I turned to was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, still one of the more enjoyable, gossipy, deliciously nasty, and surprisingly moving memoirs I know of, after which I re-read Alexandra Fuller’s alternately harrowing and hilarious, no-holds-barred memoir of growing up in war-torn Rhodesia in a family that set the bar for disfunction and balls, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. I recalled it being damn-near irresistible, and I was right. I finished up my suite of memoirs with Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter, a profoundly moving story of a mother-and-daughter relationship so beautifully wrought I found myself pausing after certain sentences just to admire the precision, the restraint, the courage, as I did with Tobias Woolf’s In Pharoah’s Army, perhaps one of the finest memoirs written about our experience in Vietnam.
From memoirs, I jumped to essays, specifically Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, most of which first appeared in The London Magazine in 1820. My palm-sized, leather-bound copy, which was once owned by someone named Ethel McCullough, who wrote her name in it in 1911, is one of the books I’d grab on my way to the gulag if they allowed you to take books to the gulag. Start with “Old China,” and go from there.
After Lamb I groped around a bit, then headed for one of my sanctuaries, namely the essays, letters, the you-name-it of E.B. White. More generally known as the author of the children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, White was one of those quintessentially American souls who seem in such short supply these days: decent, measured, democratic to the core, inherently suspicious of ideologues (of whatever political stripe), and fundamentally honest for the simple reason that anything else would be beneath him. The various essay collections (consider ordering the used hardcovers by Harper and Row) offer a tasting menu ranging from acknowledged masterpieces like “Once More to the Lake” and “Death of a Pig,” to lesser known gems like “Removal” and “Freedom.” The concluding paragraph of “Freedom” alone is worth the price of admission. Oh, and no one’s been better—or funnier—on the subject of animals and their ways than White. Not even Twain.
I think it was White’s essay, “Here Is New York,” that sent me to Joseph Mitchell’s strange and wonderful collection of essays about various New York eccentrics, obsessives, and dreamers, Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell, whose photograph on the back cover reminds me of the be-hatted and bespectacled old guys who used to sit in the back of the Mill Luncheonette on 113th St. and Broadway drinking egg creams and arguing over the daily racing forms, also wrote for The New Yorker, like White, but was more intemperate in his enthusiasms, occasionally uneven, and quintessentially urban, while White abandoned the city for a salt water farm in Maine while still fairly young. Why read him? Because to read “The Old House at Home,” his unforgettable portrait of McSorley’s Saloon, or “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” or the “Old Mr. Flood” essays, is to catch the scent of a New York just recently passed, a city populated by an annoying, half-broken, deeply touching cast of characters who can’t help but remind us, gently, of our common humanity.
This past September, just before everything went to hell again, my wife, Leslie, and I managed to get away to Greece for a few weeks—not such a big deal when you live in Europe—where we rented a tiny stone house on an island overlooking the ocean and pretended that all was well with the world. I brought one book—The Spectacle of Skill by the late Robert Hughes. It was all I needed. The Spectacle of Skill (which might have been titled, The Spectacle of Intelligence) pulls together long excerpts from Hughes’s many books, among them his prize-winning history of the settling of Australia, The Fatal Shore, and his various books on art (though for some reason omitting his wonderful—and amazingly prescient—Culture of Complaint). Nevertheless, it’s a bravura collection, a kind of self-portrait of a big, bristly, opinionated, largely self-educated, wickedly smart (and often wickedly funny) Australian utterly resistant to the opinion of the herd and genetically incapable of the kind of sloppy thinking most of us are occasionally prone too. Add to this that the guy could write—really write—and it would all be too much except that he just bowls you over with his enthusiasm, the chiseled sharpness of his sentences, the sheer audacity of his opinions. If much of his art criticism flies beyond my pay grade (the man was art critic for Time, and seemed to know basically everything there ever was to know about art, and then some), that still leaves a wealth of great stuff ranging from his description of growing up “among the cadets of Christ” in Sydney to his celebrations of Pollock and Hopper to his gleeful take downs of frauds like Warhol and Julian Schnabel to his account of finding himself in Florence after the catastrophic floods of 1966 and helping pull the masterworks of the Florentine Renaissance out of the mud by flashlight. I came away wishing he were still in the world—much as I wish Orwell or Arendt, Mencken or Twain were—if only to hear his opinion on, well, everything.
Greece ended, fall has set in, the human carnival has revved up. And I’ve started reading Proust. The way I see it, what better counterweight to our times, to the depleting torrent of “information” constantly pulling us in 50 different directions, than the silence, the focus, the self-indulgence of genius.
It’s a long winter. Remembrance of Things Past clocks in at roughly 3,300 pages in the Moncrief-Kilmartin translation. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.
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