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.
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).