December 9th, 2012

Generally I don’t care for the Q&A (Playboy interviews — I still have the photocopy my dad gave me of October 1967 interview with Jim Garrison with all the cartoons block out –notwithstanding) format because I find the questions mostly innane and the answers nearly always lifeless and well rehearsed from too oft asking.

While By The Book’s questions don’t disappoint, Ian McEwan gave answers that, might be rehearsed, but tolled for me.

One of my favorite questions to writers is how do you read? I’ve never gotten an immediate response because the question is more than a bit odd. McEwan was not faced with that question, but his response to Do you read poetry? (a particularly bad question in my opinion) elicited this wonderful, beautiful, telling-beyond-scope response:

[I]t takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist. I last felt that in relation to a poem while in the sitting room of Elizabeth Bishop’s old home in rural Brazil. I stood in a corner, apart from the general conversation, and read “Under the Window: Ouro Preto.” The street outside was once an obscure thoroughfare for donkeys and peasants. Bishop reports overheard lines as people pass by her window, including the beautifully noted “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.” That same street now is filled with thunderous traffic — it fairly shakes the house. When I finished the poem I found that my friends and our hosts had left the room. What is it precisely, that feeling of “returning” from a poem? Something is lighter, softer, larger — then it fades, but never completely.

If achieving such self-annihilation is not the grail of any reader (or writer), then I don’t know what is.

I also found these two exchanges interesting:

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I wouldn’t trouble the president with advice, or with one more transient treatise on America’s supposed terminal decline. For the sake of the general good, I’d have him absorbed in poetry. What would suit him well, I believe, is the work of James Fenton. His “Selected” would be fine. The range of subject matter and tone is immense. The long, wise reflections on conflict (“Those whom geography condemns to war”) would be instructive to a commander in chief, and the imaginative frenzy of “The Ballad of the Shrieking Man” would give him the best available measure of the irrational human heart. There are poems of mischief and wild misrule. A lovely consolatory poem about death is there, “For Andrew Wood.” (“And there might be a pact between/ Dead friends and living friends.”) And there are the love poems — love songs really, filled with a sweet, teasing, wistful lyricism that could even (but probably won’t) melt the heart of a Republican contender. “Am I embarrassing you?” one such poem asks in its penultimate line.


If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

I apologize for being obvious, but every time I watch the curtain come down on even a halfway decent production of a Shakespeare play I feel a little sorrowful that I’ll never know the man, or any man of such warm intelligence. What would I want to know? His gossip, his lovers, his religion (if any), the Silver Street days, his thoughts on England and power in the 17th century — as young then as the 21st is for us. And why he’s retiring to Stratford. The biographies keep coming, and there’s a great deal we know about Shakespeare’s interactions with institutions of various kinds. England was already a proto-modern state that kept diligent records. But the private man eludes us and always will until some rotting trunk in an ancient attic yields a Pepys-like journal. But that’s historically impossible. He’s gone.

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