Great authors can sometimes be found in magazines and journals. I subscribe to some academic journals for my field and, like the evening shadow, they are covering the entire room with their shades. Others are for just reading and learning. So I subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, which is a nosy magazine about Israel. I read Commentary, which is knowledgeable about Israel’s place in the international context. Its writers are intelligent and they write for those who want to think about the right side of political power in the world. I also take Gilbert! but this will be the last year I read it. There is too much dreck and ephemeral writing by sentimental Chesterton fans, even if I appreciate Dale Ahlquist and various bits and bobs in the glossy magazine. I read The New York Review of Books and First Things (but not one after the other!).
By far my favorite reading journal is The American Scholar. Here I find essays (without footnotes) by people who care about words and about others who read good authors. The absence of footnotes is a good thing for those of us who have the obsession to footnote everything. We must agree with Jacques Barzun who speaks of such pedantic showmanship as “sashaying among monographs which we readily take as a guaranty of soundness.” Isaiah Berlin, who mediated the higher levels of humanistic thought in clear-headed prose, called this “pretentious rhetoric” little more than a “device for concealing poverty of thought or muddle, and sometimes perilously near a confidence trick.” After giving a public paper and stating in a humorous crack on my own part that a Chicago politician once said that he didn’t want to “cast asparagus” on anyone, one of the listeners wanted to know where he could find that quotation so it could be confirmed, I gently said, “I heard it somewhere.” It was the same place I heard the woman say that she got a disease and it went “all through her symptom.” The same place I heard a dentist say, when looking down into someone’s smelly mouth, that this was “cuspid’s last stand.” Footnotes, like gaudy jewelry on an elegant dress, disgrace such lines.
The American Scholar doesn’t, I repeat, need footnotes. In fact, there is almost an assumption that intelligent people need only to be reminded of such quotations. (I usually need more than a reminder, but I do like their confidence in me.) Most issues introduce me to a new writer whose writings I can look up, bring home, and read in my desultory meanderings. I first read Anne Fadiman in this journal, and I found Merrill Joan Gerber here as well. I’ll find more. When I don’t, I’ll move on to another subscription. I also move on from one issue of any subscription to another: if by the time the new issue arrives I haven’t finished the former issue, I put the former on the shelf and begin with the new one. This is a clever move to avoid getting behind in my subscription reading.
Sets and subscriptions are not just about owning. One must learn to use one’s books. Most of us have this little problem with memory. As La Rochefoucauld had it, “Every one complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgement”. Speaking of judgment, sometimes Nabokov asked his memory to speak and he heard what he thought was memory, but it turned out (so I’m told) not to be solid memory. Russians may be great spellers and writers of long novels, but their memory is no better than most. In fact, some of them seem to have forgotten their own history. Because our memory is not infallible, great readers have this habit of writing in a commonplace book. If you open up The American Scholar, you will find in each issue a section called “Commonplace Book”, which is a string of disconnected quotations on a given topic – the latest a collection by André Bernard on “Dreaming.” He’s found nice quotations by T.E. Lawrence, Pascal, Joseph Campbell, E.B. White, Plutarch, Wanda Landowska, B.F. Skinner, Sir James George Frazer, Samuel de Champlain, William James, Charles MacKay, Sigmund Freud, and Abigail Adams. Some of these authors make cameo appearances on my shelves, but my memory is not sharp enough to recall what any of them has said about dreams – except Freud and I don’t care much for the guy. Here’s the kind of thing he said: “If we give way to the view that a part of our psychical functioning cannot be explained by purposive ideas, we are failing to appreciate the extent of determination in mental life.” Whatchyasayin’ there Sigismund? That’s why I don’t like Freud; he’s inverted reality. As the new movie, The Recruit, has it, “Life is not what it seems.” Well, I think it is, and if we don’t, I think we better figure it out real soon, or things that seem now will not be here long.
Now, the question is this: how did I get that quotation from Freud? I don’t subscribe to the idea of a commonplace book, or least I came to the conclusion that I don’t so late that it was too late to start. (Is 49 too late to start one?) Commonplace writers begin or end or punctuate each day with a time to write out the best lines from readings they marked from the previous day. Let us say that I read parts of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow, which I did, and I find a good line or two. Say, on page 100 I like”The only thing they [creative people] definitely don’t like is wasting time.” Today, somewhere tucked into the cracks of the day, I sit down and write out, word for word (with references so it can be verified if I need to), what this fellow with a sesquipedalian-like name wrote. I then build a series of notebooks with quotable lines, and over a lifetime I’ve got myself something. By the way, Csikszentmihalyi’s name sprinted to the front of my list for all-time author’s names: his name is pronounced as “Chick-SENT-me-high” according to his publisher, but I suspect they’re out for an eye-raising. He now runs a length ahead than my previous author favorite: The Oxford Classical Dictionary edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (with a gentle nudge into the realm of fiction, one can call the latter “Spewforth” and get a winner, but I don’t like fiction).