Quotations: On Atheism


“I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory.” —Nick Hornby, Songbook

“Agnosticism is not a state in which the mind of an intelligent being can permanently rest. It is essentially a condition of suspense—a confession of ignorance—an abdication of thought on the highest subjects. Generally, however, under the surface of professed Agnosticism, there will be found some more or less positive opinions about the origin and nature of things all of them agreeing in this, that they negate the belief in God. It is not, in the nature of things, possible for the mind to remain persistently in this neutral, passive attitude. It will press on perforce to one or other of the views which present themselves as alternatives—either to Theism, or to Materialism and dogmatic Atheism.” —James Orr, The Christian View of God and the Word

“The number of reasonable atheist questions versus condescending atheist sneers that I have run across just directed at me in [sic] less than one in four.” —SF writer, and former atheist, John C. Wright

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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

Truly Cultured


What does it mean to be “truly cultured”? Here’s what Zaid said, or wrote, in his book So Many Books: “. . . the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” (That’s Gabriel Zaid, by the way.)

Heartened by this keen observation, and taking the point further, Nick Hornby writes that “with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

So if you need to streamline your holdings because you’ve long since run out of room for new volumes, one rule may be to ask of a given book, “What does your presence in my library say about me? Is that who I am? And whether it is or not, is that how I want to be known?”

Quotations: On Writing


“If you don’t feel like writing, you can always read about it.”

—Doug Geivett (title of my post here)

“All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”

—Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson Writes a Story

“The process of writing is an adventure; you never know how things are going to configure themselves. When I begin a book, I know it’s going to transform my life.”

—Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“Writers write for two reasons. One is that they have something they want to say. The other, equally compelling motive is that they have something they want to find out. Writing is a mode of exploration.”

—Margaret Lucke, Writing Great Short Stories Read more of this post

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