implication

Word by word

September 7, 2016 | 8 Comments

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

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A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Paul Kalanithi had his life mapped out: 20 years of medical practice followed by 20 years of writing. Amidst that span, marriage and children, vacations and celebrations—plenty of time to repair the strains in his marriage caused by his tenacious pursuit of medical excellence. Found riddled with cancer late in his surgical residency, already a gifted neurosurgeon at age 36, he soldiered on for a time. While terminal himself, he operated on others.

Finally lacking the endurance for surgery, he concentrated on writing When Breath Becomes Air. In just under two years left to him, he wrote about his cancer treatments, about medicine as a high calling, about his past and ongoing life. He also became a father, nine months before he died, at age 37.

His cancer responded well to initial treatment, but returned. He explains his reaction to seeing those scans, which told him his end was coming fast:

“I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth. I drove home and told Lucy.”

Few have been more prepared than Kalanithi to make sense of mortality. Growing up in Arizona, the son of a cardiologist, he’d planned to be a writer partly because of how hard his father worked. The price of medicine seemed too high. But then he became a neurosurgeon.

Weaving stories of surgeries he performed or treatments he witnessed with his own experiences as a patient Kalinithi reveals himself not only as intelligent but as deeply empathetic to patients. ­Like the rest of us, as a patient himself he had fine doctors and fair—and one awful resident who almost killed him, it seemed as much from ego and lack of empathy as from inadequate experience. When Breath Becomes Air might be assigned in medical schools to address what seems a vexing nub: always building technical expertise while blending that skill with one’s humanity

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What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Serendipity occasionally tosses books together on a reader’s platter, thus multiplying the impact they might have had if encountered separately. If you like to chew on ideas, consuming books in combo can become an art as subtle as the pairing of food and wine.

Two titles from the year past are polar opposites in many ways, yet explore the same underlying idea: What have we jettisoned in our transition to the electronic era? One publication is a collection by an established older essayist on the East Coast and the other is a debut novel by a young emerging writer in the Rockies. Both authors edit literary journals. Each book in its own way addresses the digital conversion of our lives and the consequences of that progress. In their explorations of the Internet Age, both authors establish what has disappeared and then illuminate the ramifications.

Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, turns a searchlight on technology’s threat to creativity in his collection of seventeen essays (all previously published individually in a variety of journals). The titles in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age are intriguing. A sample: “You Are What You Click,” “The Hive Life,” “The Room and the Elephant,” “Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,” “Idleness,” “Bolaño Summer: A Reading Journal,” and “The Still Point.”

Birkerts examines what has occurred in the twenty-two years since he wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.

He pitches questions and then marshals quotes from well-known writers to augment his answers, sometimes agreeing with their points of view and sometimes not. As Birkerts converses with their ideas, he presents his own stance while at the same time enlisting the reader’s attention to consider the situation along with him.

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Shining prose, timeless insights

March 2, 2016 | 2 Comments

Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” depicts an aged African American woman, Phoenix Jackson, making an arduous journey through woods and fields along the Natchez Trace, an ancient trail, to the small city of Natchez, Mississippi. She’s challenged by the terrain and menaced by a stray dog and by a white quail hunter.

Reading “The Worn Path” again, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, summoned its effect on me at twenty. Then, I marveled at why she went to town, revealed near the end, as if her motive was a trick Welty planted. This time, I marveled at how Welty got her there.

What sent me to this masterpiece of empathy and imagination again was that last week I stumbled across Lee Smith’s essay in Garden & Gun magazine about how James Still and Welty influenced her. In their work, Smith recognized her own subject—her people, as they say in the South. What happened is that Welty came to Hollins College to read, and 19-year-old Smith watched and listened, transfixed. Welty read “A Worn Path,” Smith writes, in “her fast light voice that seemed to sing along with the words of the story.”

By the time the hero of “The Worn Path” meets the white bully and some clueless city folks in town, we know her well. And as she tries to get help in town, the story’s full implication blossoms. Having given life to an old lady in a hard situation, Welty achieved one of narrative’s highest arts—associated with fiction but possible in nonfiction—of giving readers an experience and letting them add two and two for themselves.

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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Making old stories new

February 10, 2016 | 9 Comments

Like everyone, I’m trying to distill meaning from the deluge of our presidential campaign season. What stories about themselves—and America—are candidates selling? How will the competing truths of those left standing square with mine? What vision will voters pick for the title of Overarching Narrative?

My reflexive analysis occurs while I’m completing an essay about how memory, imagination, and story intertwine. The surprising byproduct of my work has been a radical rethinking of some of my long-unexamined inner narratives. This has been positive personally, and powerful for my essay. Meanwhile, as events, stories, and spin erupt on the national stage, I can only hope our republic’s story emerges from its test similarly affirmed.

Politically, I sway between brilliant writers’ truths. For a day, I fell under the spell of Charles M. Blow’s deft essay in the New York Times, “White America’s ‘Broken Heart.’” Blow lauds Bill Clinton’s “clear rhetorical framing” of the current narrative as being about white America’s anxiety in sharing a new demographic future. Then I leapt to an even more subtle accounting, R.R. Reno’s New York Times essay “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class.” Reno calls the racial theory a “huge distraction” from the real issue: those flourishing in the global economy and those foundering.

Then there are simply hateful candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with their rage, egotism, and guile. How mistaken their notions of human history and human nature; how meager their own ideas. In colonial times, invitations to meet with pistols at twenty paces greeted less annoying fools

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