Best Quote Challenge—On Freedom (June 29, 2008)


Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” This Friday is Independence Day. The Best Quote Challenge for this week—June 29 to July 5—is “On Freedom.”

Here are the rules:

  1. Submit your quotation no later than July 5, 2008.
  2. Submit no more than one quotation for this challenge.
  3. Identify the source for the quotation you submit.
  4. Feel free to quote yourself; that is, you’re welcome to submit a quote of your own invention.
  5. Use the “Leave a Comment” link below this post to enter your submission.
  6. All submissions will be screened and must be consistent with the general guidelines for posting comments at this blog. (See the “Comments Policy” page.)

On Sunday, July 6, a new Best Quote Challenge will be set at this blog. During the week of July 6-12, votes will be taken for the “Best Quote on Freedom” submitted this week. So be sure to come back to this post then to cast your vote using the “Leave a Comment” link below.

Poem in Need of a Title


Poetry

Is not for me.

I wrote “this little ditty,” as they say, earlier this year. Imagine the exertion!

I’m now taking suggestions for a title. I’ve had two nominations, so far: “The Poet,” and “Poet Wannabe.”

For the time being

And maybe in perpetuity,

“Poetry

Is not for me,”

Will have to idle

As “Poem In Need of a Title.”

The Stuff Growing on the Bark


Nick Hornby, a.k.a. Nick Jagger, was induced to read this volume of short stories by a friend, Johanna. Agreeing to do so, with the usual reluctance he reserves for books recommended by friends, Hornby found himself buying up first editions for his other friends. “It’s that sort of book,” he says, in The Polysyllabic Spree.

The book is How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer. One year after reading Hornby’s endorsement—today, in fact—I sampled two of the stories. First I read “Stations of the Cross,” the last in the book, and not mentioned by Hornby. It reminded me of a film I saw recently, where the son of an Irish Catholic fireman sets out to convert the ailing son of the local rabbi. I could see immediately that Orringer can write. But she hadn’t convinced me yet that her writing was for me.

So I turned to the first story in the book, called “Pilgrims.” It was this story that had single-handedly compelled Hornby to grab up copies. This story, he promised, “makes you feel panicky and breathless.” That sounded like a rewarding experience, so I dipped into it. I didn’t feel panicky and breathless. Still, I could see why I might if I hadn’t been led to expect it.

For me, there are a couple of crucial tests of a good short story. These are utterly subjective. First, I have to be tempted, if not driven, to find more by the same author. Second, I have to believe that the story is one I would return to periodically. “Pilgrims” passes these tests. But I can’t say I “liked” the story. Like “Stations of the Cross,” “Pilgrims” has that artsy unfinished feel to it. This authorial penchant is fine with me, if it’s handled properly. I want to have some idea how my train of thought can proceed—not to say, should proceed—without the author’s assistance, when the sentences have run out. My limitation, I suppose.

Hornby generalizes in this way about Orringer’s ouvre: “while her themes are as solid and recognizable as oak trees, the stuff growing on the bark you’ve never seen before.” Now I’ve read two of her stories, I think maybe I know what he means. Maybe.

Nick Jagger


Nick Hornby

For another example of an author who writes about his reading jags—and who is the source for this phrase—check out Nick Hornby, who writes the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading Column” for The Believer magazine. My first encounter with Nick Hornby was through a couple of his novels. Later, during a bookstore browse, I came across The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of fourteen of his “Been Reading” essays. This began a Nick Hornby spree of my own, leading next to Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a kind of sequel.

In appreciation for his artful writing in this genre, I’ve taken to calling Hornby “Nick Jagger.” He contributes an essay at a pace of one entry per month. Each entry begins with two columns, the left column listing “Books Bought” and the right column listing “Books Read.” In the essay that follows, Hornby charts his reflections on items in the right-hand column.

It’s not unusual for my own reading jags to take a new turn because of an item on the Hornby list.

Nick Hornby Interviews

New Page and Post Category


Today I’ve created a new blog category called “Reading Jags.” I’ve written a page that describes the aims that guide my posts to this category.

Get Thee to the Novel!


This is Cynthia Ozick’s advice. It’s a vital antidote to the crowding of the mind by the . . . well, by the crowd. Ozick values “The Din in the Head,” the title of her essay in defense of the novel.

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Problem? That special form of consciousness that is the unconstrained play of the mind is overwhelmed with noise from the outside world. The crowd, the human community, is her metaphor for this noise, because it is such a typical source of the noise. The problem has worsened with “the ratcheting up of technology.” So many things contrive to sublimate the maelstrom of the heart, “that relentless inner hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.”

Solution? Reading that returns one to interiority. Two forms of literature have this power, and both are sadly neglected and increasingly hard to come by: the personal essay and the literary novel. “Literary grandeur is out of style.”

Why does Ozick value the din in the head over the din of the crowd? Din—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a welter of discordant sounds.” Who wants that going on in his head?

It may be that our self-saturation with inputs from a manufactured world is welcome precisely for its power to silence the din in the head. Ozick believes we need rest stops along the information highway. Our obsession with the delivery system of one kind of knowledge deafens us to another source of knowledge. Yes, knowledge. The literary novel imparts knowledge, but not systematically. Thus, it is not a delivery system. But there is truth in fiction, truth that surfaces through varied “cobwebby knowings.”

There are truths that have that cobwebby texture in our minds. It can’t be helped. And there’s no knowing them, at least initially, without this sort of acquaintance. But do we prize this sort of knowledge? Arguably, we do not. It is more likely that we are confounded by the claim that this is a kind of knowledge.

I believe that there is such knowledge and that it is foundational to the knowledge enterprise. Our reasons for believing so much of what we believe are often beyond articulation. And yet they are sound. They ground much of what we know through a peculiar form of consciousness, experience that is possible only under conditions of quietude. But what’s the novel got to do with that? The novel is the distillation of imagined experience. By reading I am able to experience what is otherwise beyond my frame of reference. And this puts me in cognitive contact with truths whose nature determines how they can be known. I concur with Ozick; reading carefully crafted fiction is one way they can be known.

Cynthia Ozick’s essay can be found in One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.

Cynthia Ozick Links:

Quotations: The Intellectual Life


“. . . the history of thought is the laboratory of the thinker . . . .”

—Eugene R. Fairweather

“So I’m not educated. I learned my stuff. I’m a heart surgeon, sure, but I’m just a mechanic.”

—Character named Mel, in Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

“The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes./. . . . The history of my stupidity will not be written./For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.”

—From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Account,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Most of us hate to think. Five minutes of thought can be more terrifying, more energy-draining than days and days of routine or habitual activity. Your mind is intrinsically thrifty, and prefers to do things the way it has done them before. It sees its primary business as establishing effective channels for action, and resists altering a channel that has become established, to say nothing of constructing a new one that causes anxiety.”

—Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time

“I’m a stenographer of my mind.”

—Allen Ginsberg, poet (1926-1997)

“Your best thought is imbedded [sic] in chunks of your worst thought.”

—Mark Levy, Accidental Genius

“Friends of the human race and of what is holiest to it! Accept what appears to you most worthy of belief after careful and sincere examination, whether of facts or rational grounds; only do not dispute that prerogative of reason which makes it the highest good on earth, the prerogative of being the final touchstone of truth.”

—Immanuel Kant, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”

“Most evidently, we cannot give up on the principle of non-contradiction, bold but wayward logicians notwithstanding.”

—Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint

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