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Gail Caldwell Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Gail Caldwell

Gail Caldwell

An interview with Gail Caldwell

A critic's life can be a happy one, with the right frame of mind. Robert Birnbaum talks to Pulitzer-prize winner Gail Caldwell about a life well read, 19th-century novels, and the changing of hearts.

Reproduced by permission of Robert Birnbaum, first published in 2003.

Gail Caldwell was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1951, and is chief book critic at The Boston Globe, where she has been on staff since 1985. Caldwell had been a finalist in criticism for both the Pulitzer Prize (three times) and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Award and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for 'for her insightful observations on contemporary life and literature.' In a post-prize interview with Dan Kennedy, Caldwell observes that her intention, is to use her book reviews as a 'framework on which to build something more lasting… to write about the range of human experience, and not just whether to buy this book.' Gail Caldwell lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Clemmie (short for Clementine), her Samoyed canine companion.

This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a breezy late summer afternoon. As is usually the case Rosie, my Labrador was in attendance.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you used to living in Boston?

Gail Caldwell: No, but I ought to be. I have been here 20 years.

RB: Right.

GC: Twenty-two years.

RB: So why aren't you?

GC: Well, I'll never be a New Englander. I think I have been here long enough now that I get to complain about it, like all other New Englanders. But, um, [thoughtful pause] used it to it? Yes, it's home, it's familiar, there are things that I love about New England. I really can't imagine being anywhere else. I also will always be an ex-Texan. The older one gets, I think, the more you have that sensibility where you are from. And in a way, I have the luxury of saying that because I am 2,000 miles from where I grew up. So it's much easier to be romantic about one's roots.

RB: The complaints that you have about New England, you think are normal complaints?

GC: Totally.

RB: In that sense they are not really complaints? Everybody has them, so they are more like conversation pieces.

GC: Yeah. They are curmudgeonly. Exactly. Sentence starters. After a while some of those things are about age. The world is more crowded than it was when I was 15. And that would be true if I were in Austin or Boulder or Berkeley. The winters are probably not colder than they were.

RB: Given my experience including growing up in Chicago I don't call my complaints about Boston curmudgeonly. I truly find it to be some kind of psyche experiment gone awry.

GC: You mean you think people are mean and rude?

RB: Yes, I do.

GC: It's funny, I think I am used to that. I now live in a neighborhood in Cambridge where I never have to go more than a mile outside my radius. And I know all my neighbors and I row on the Charles [River], which is half a mile from where I live and I walk at Fresh Pond. So there is a familiarity of community, I am not sure is particular…I think one can find it in any neighborhood. I am also such a Texan that I make people talk to me. So…

[both laugh]

GC: …I am conscious of that sometimes. I think that people think that I am exotic. Or they think there is something because I'm like, 'Hi neighbor.' And than I realize that I still have just got it.

RB: You are talking about doing what seems to be rare, people getting to know their neighbors. You've created that small-town feeling.

GC: A little enclave, yeah.

RB: I'm not sure that's the case for most people and especially in a place like Boston which is so transient.

GC: I think that's true. But you know what, I never go into Boston. Isn't that awful?

RB: Actually, no.

GC: What you are describing sounds true to me but I don't experience it that much anymore.

RB: And it doesn't affect people that you are in contact with? You aren't hearing, 'Those damn drivers…' or the ' The fucking weather…?'

GC: Well, you know I work at home. So I miss the commute. I don't experience the road rage because I go against the traffic. I don't have kids so I don't have to do the school vacation thing.

RB: Do you call what you do a job?

GC: I do call it a job. They [Boston Globe] do too.

[both laugh]

RB: Yes, I suppose. From the bare outline of what you have described and a sense of the book world, most people would call your job 'cushy.' Is it a cushy job?

GC: I think most people who think that haven't done it.

[both laugh]

GC: I mean I love my job. But I am always amazed at the people who say, 'You mean you get paid to lie around and read novels all day?' I read differently, obviously, when I am reading for review. I have a marathoner's pace. I have been doing this for 18 years. So what I usually say when people say that is, 'It's like being an English graduate student for the rest of your life. And you have a paper due every Monday.' I write well on deadline. And certainly have some beautiful freedoms, in terms of getting to pick and choose what I review. And I have cumulative staying power with what I have read over the years. I don't think it's a job that, actually, a lot of people would want. You spend most of your time in your head with a book in your lap. You have to be profoundly engaged or you can't do your job.

RB: Let's set aside most people. I assume most people don't read or read much. But for so-called bookish and even more serious literary types, I think, they would find what you are talking about very attractive. Except perhaps for the deadlines and their being relentless and unending.

GC: It's generally about 45 lead reviews a year. Multiply that by a decade or two and you have a lot of essays under the gun.

RB: Are you still able to read recreationally?

GC: Yes. Oddly, more so now than when I was first reviewing. There is some conscious and unconscious sense that unhinges – that I do not have to take notes, remember specific arguments, things I love, the larger contexts – when I am reading for review. I am reading systematically, carefully, and in the larger sense, always. Even more than when I am reading against the clock. And none of that has to be called up with the same kind of focus when I am reading for pleasure or recreation. I can simply let something envelop me. I often find this when I jury – I do that often – without necessarily having to write about it – I am reading for jurying. I feel the work, I can read evaluatively and still be like, 'Ach. I don't have to write about this on deadline.'

I am arguing for a tragic world-view, I think. Knowing and witnessing is not the same thing as creating a revolution� At least outside the mind.

RB: Is there a way of calling the reading-work studying as opposed to the recreational reading?

GC: [pauses, waiting for more]

RB: You are looking for certain elements, for parts of the book to confirm and exhibit what you are going to say, quotes and passages. And so you are developing something that is beyond the reading?

GC: Sure, but I wouldn't call that studying. As somebody who was in academe for a long time and also taught, I think of studying as much more specific and developmental. I think of it as reading critically and analytically and also knowing that you are going to be writing [about what is being read]. Those are almost two separate things. For instance, I read up to the day before I write and don't read anything in between. Because I don't want my – whatever you want to call it – my internal construct of the book to be compromised by reading anything else. I like to finish and then sleep and then write the next day. I am probably thinking about what I am writing as well as what I am reading. Those are two intertwined things but they are not the same.

RB: Your decision to review is made before you read a book? Are there times when you read something and you say, 'I have to do this book?'

GC: Well, I do a kind of triage. What happens is that I go in and look at mountains of [book] galleys that are arriving and also I know what's coming because of the publisher's catalogues. So I will have an idea that I want to review something and often I will start something and think, 'This is not for me. This guy's brilliant but he is not my type.' I will do that and say, 'We ought to do it but I'm not the one to do it, so assign it to someone else.' Conversely, I'll get a book – this just happened with The Truth about Celia – which I was not anticipating…

RB: Kevin Brockmeier's novel?

GC: Yes, and I started it and sighed, 'I want to do this.' But that happens less often because my schedule is pretty finished in advance.

RB: Do you feel compelled to do the books by the big writers? For example, your Karl Iagemma review was unexpected because he is young and unknown. As the lead reviewer aren't you responsible for the big literary guns?

GC: I do. I'll do Philip Roth when that's in the May schedule but if I can do Karl Iagnemma because he happens to be on it as well…I don't want to have to stop doing new fresh voices. So some blend is the best. There are some blockbusters I just as soon have somebody else review if it means that I get instead to do some new vital force nobody has heard of in American fiction. That's great.

RB: How much do external influences affect you? Besides the catalogues and seeing the galleys, do you talk to other people about the book and literary world? What do you read about it?

GC: I read the trades, Publisher's Weekly, the Times…I don't read any reviews until I have filed. To tell you the truth, I suspect you would hear this from many reviewers. I often miss whatever scuttlebutt there is. I think that's probably better for me. If it's just about me and the text, I'm in much better shape.

RB: I think that's true. But I wonder how one avoids all the ambient noise.

GC: Publicists try to get through on voice mail and there are too many of them and too many books and it's not even personal. I just can't. So galleys come and often it's just me and a stack of books. Because I read Publisher's Weekly I almost always know…I will know for instance about Cold Mountain. I will know it's a phenomenon whether I have read it or not. But that's after – the way everybody else does, because I read the papers.

RB: What about the Internet?

GC: It's a great tool.

RB: I have noticed that are…

[At this point we are interrupted by a guard type official, hereafter called Cemetery Person {CP}]

RB: Hi [to CP], need something?

CP: No picnic!

RB: No food.

CP: No food, no pets!

RB: No what?

CP: No pets, no dogs!

RB: May I put her [Rosie, who is calmly lying at our feet] in the car?

CP: Yeah. Thank you.

RB: Sure.

GC: May I point out it also says [in the brochure CP hands us] 'no boisterous conduct.'

RB: I have my moments but it may not be today.

GC: [laughs]

But this is one of the perils of the modern age. Right? We live in this information age where everybody has an opinion and most of them don't matter.

RB: Anyway, what has caught my attention is that there are more and more weblogs in which the people who are doing them are readers and inclined to literature whether or not that is the focus of their weblog. They are happy to talk about books and frequently do. But it is starting to sound like the echo chamber that is a hallmark of New York media. Tibor Fischer trashes Martin Amis's new book in the Telegraph and immediately the story is being repeated and then within a week Amis's book is being trashed by people who haven't read it and then go on to heap abuse on his other books. I don't read enough reviews to know if it happens in the book review world, does it?

GC: I don't think so. I could be wrong. I could be living in this innocent little post-Luddite existence by saying that. I hope it's not true. I understand what you are saying and I feel a little bit about that the way I feel about 'See More About Me,' the reviewer. It's like fine, let them all sound off. But this is one of the perils of the modern age. Right? We live in this information age where everybody has an opinion and most of them don't matter.

RB: I think they matter but they don't matter to me.

GC: That's what I am getting at.

RB: That is a dilemma but I am not sure if it is perilous. I am glad that these sites exist but the self-congratulation is getting a little much. I don't see any revolution, the world has not been altered significantly as far I can tell. In any case, it seems there are always malcontents who will say that civilization is declining…

GC: Right.

RB: And as long as I have been paying attention to the world of literature, people have been saying that world is shrinking and declining as long as I can remember. Is that like complaining about one's locale, complaining about the decline of civilization and literature is what smart literate people do?

GC: It's what we are supposed to do.

[both laugh]

GC: After a certain age it's necessary.

RB: It keeps us off the streets?

GC: Absolutely

[both laugh heartily]

I don't feel that novels change the world. I think novels change people's hearts. People's hearts, one at a time, change the world.

RB: In the mean time as we laugh happily in this idyllic setting and we have sufficient water and gasoline, there are horrible things going on in the world.

GC: There always were.

RB: Right. And there are suggestions that intelligence offers the possibility of agency and empowerment and somehow we can actually do things and actually institute a government that is humane and has just practices and deals with the rest of the world in such a way. Ultimately, don't many writers feel their mission is to leave the world in better shape than it was before?

GC: Yes, but I am not sure that means that they can have anything to do with the way the world works. I am arguing for a tragic world-view, I think. Knowing and witnessing is not the same thing as creating a revolution. Right? At least outside the mind.

RB: Yes, but it's a necessary condition.

GC: Which one?

RB: Knowing. We are both of a generation that was politically active. So I find it abhorrent that there is this revisionist, 'We were dumb young hippies on drugs,' as if to discredit the intentions and the values of youthful activism.

GC: I don't feel that way. I don't believe that. And I hate that too. The revisionist 'oops.' But you went from a knowing, sensitive world-view to, 'Can we do something to change the way the world is?' I guess, one of the things that has happened to me – and I suspect happens to most people in the course of a lifetime – is that you realize both what you can do and what you can not. I don't mean that to sound futile as much as I do…I don't believe that. What's this great line by what's his name, the Presbyterian minister who is a writer. I remember reading something he wrote that said, 'It's not that I believe that prayer changes the world, prayer changes people and people change the world.' I thought that was such a beautiful comment from somebody, whether you believe in God or not. What he was really talking about was an inner dialogue. I don't feel that novels change the world. I think novels change people's hearts. People's hearts, one at a time, change the world.

RB: [pause] Yes. I am not suggesting that a stirring novel, read by a mass of people will send them to the barricades.

GC: So John Dos Passos is not going to…

RB: No, none of them.

GC: Clifford Odets. [laughs]

RB: We're still Waiting for Lefty. Like the Jews waiting for the Messiah. He's a little delayed. Well, that's an endless digression. Are you drawn to writers who have broader ambitions than to tell a good story? I'm not suggesting the didactic 19-century novel….

GC: I love the didactic 19-century novel. Give me Middlemarch anytime.

RB: What kind of writers are you drawn to?

GC: More ambitious than to tell a good story? Sure, but Faulkner, you could say, just told a good story. I think that's what he always said about himself. What I will say is that I find more true the longer the dire state of American fiction in particular goes on, is that I don't think that people have the panoramic view that they used to. There are wonderful exceptions like Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon. There is a lot of stuff in the last few years that have argued that point but there are a great number of contemporary fiction writers who go for the myopic sensitive-heart rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel. I love big brilliant novels that people dare to imagine. I love the vista that the 19-century novel great golden age novelists envisioned. And it will never die as far as I am concerned. I went into Wordsworth [Cambridge MA bookstore] the other day where I had not been in a while. And it looked like they had moved fiction because they had put in three new areas between the inventory desk and the fiction shelves. I walked in and I said, 'Have you moved fiction?' and they said, 'No, it's in the back.' I walked back and I realized there was nine genres up to where fiction had started. I thought, 'Oh my God, my world is so small. Look what we have been relegated, the back two shelves in the store.' Which was just overflowing with biography and…

RB: You think there is less fiction being published or stores are purchasing less?

GC: I don't know the answer to that.

RB: You can look at your book mail, I don't think it's getting smaller.

GC: I don't think it's getting smaller. I felt as though it was marginalized. It made me feel like I was seeing the hard evidence of the people who have said to me, 'You know I don't really read fiction anymore.' And I do know people who say that. They read biography. They read history.

RB: You've got me thinking about the world I live in.

GC: We both live in very small worlds. I think that's true. I think it's true about the state of the novel.

RB: I guess we need reminders that not everybody who reads, reads fiction.

GC: We assume the opposite but it's not true.

RB: I am trying to process what it means that so many people are going to writing schools….

GC: That many writers need jobs. That's one thing it means.

RB: Well, yeah. But also there is a greater celebrity consciousness about writers.

GC: Exactly.

There is something heart-stopping about knowing that you can sit down with a lot of black etchings on white and go into another universe and stay there, often, as long as you need. Obviously, that separates us from sometimes each other and sometimes the rest of the world.

RB: Writers seem to be more prominent as celebrities than they ever were before. When gossip columns start talking about what Franzen does with his grant money or Rick Moody – why do they know this stuff?

GC: I was going to say, 'Why do they know this stuff?' Well, one could argue too that ever since the 15-minutes-of-fame world happened everything has a cachet that it didn't have 20 or 30 years ago. The novel has a cachet that…the novel is a relatively new and minor form in the literate world in the last 2,000 years. Or longer. Right? The number of people who assume that the novel is the ne plus ultra, that's what is to be aspired to, is shocking to me. There are writers who want to write the great American novel and they don't even know what that means.

RB: [laughs]

GC: They don't think they want to write the great American poem anymore. I also think what's happened in the last 20 years or so in memoir and in confessional pathological journalism, whether it's anything from Oprah to what's happened to genre biography, people think they have a story to tell. Non-writers think, 'Gasp? I have a great story. Now I need to learn to write.

RB: As an abstraction, I accept that as a premise that everybody has a story to tell.

GC: Everybody does have a story. That's where stories come from.

RB: Whether everybody can write that story or tell the story, even if every story is interesting…

GC: I think every story is not interesting. But any story can be made interesting by the right mind and sensibility. I am very reticent to say that most people that want to be writers have that.

RB: A moment or two ago you joked that we have writing schools because so many writers need jobs. I don't think that accounts for the demand…

GC: I don't know. One could speculate why that is an industry. Supply and demand? You have a lot of writers who can teach and you have even more who want to learn.

RB: Why do people want to be writers? I recently spoke with Doug Coupland who said the positive thing about ambitions to be musicians and writers now is the aspirants had to be pursuing these arts for their own sake since it was obvious that they weren't going to be making money. Except for the scenario you have on opening day at exclusive schools where you are told to look to the right and the left and understand that those people aren't going to make it…so everybody doesn't think they aren't going to achieve great success.

GC: Of course…write the breakout book. Yeah.

RB: And yet, why do they think that they are going to be the one? Especially given the normal amount of insecurity that writers have. And it's so hard.

GC: It goes back to what we were saying about the age of celebrity. People think those things insure a certain kind of happiness or glamour.

RB: Getting back to the notion of the echo chamber. Does that affect you when there is a really big book? Did the David McCullough juggernaut, selling over a million copies in hard cover in short time…though it wasn't fiction, it must have colored or meant something culturally?

GC: It says a lot about marketing too when a book takes off. Sometimes it's a zeitgeist but other times it's a matter of who is behind it. I think about it as much as anyone else who tries to pay attention to the trash mass culture – not so much as metaphor for where we are. You can't get meaning itself from that subject as much as from the marketing.

RB: What do you make of the efforts – as recently Tim Adams in the Guardian – and as Gore Vidal and Anthony Lane before him, to read all the books on the best seller list? Does that tell you something about the cultural moment?

GC: I wouldn't want the job.

[both laugh]

GC: I'd rather read Anthony Lane's piece than read the books on the bestseller list.

RB: Adams raised an interesting point. In the UK best seller lists are a relatively recent device. So I wonder why do we have them? Why are they useful to people who are readers?

GC: I'm not sure they are. The reason for them has more to do with the booksellers than the publishers.

RB: But they believe they influence readers.

GC: I think they do. Remember the great scandal about the New York Times 15 years ago. Does the bestseller list become a self-perpetuating object? Any books are going to tell you something about the culture but less the prism of this moment than of maybe the decade. When you look back at the 19th-century American novel and you see books like my favorite… I remember studying the age of the sentimental novel and TS Arthur's Ten Nights in a Barroom, you can look back and start to understand things about Victorian England and America by looking at what some of the popular fiction was. It's still true today but it's harder to do with last year's list than it is with, let's say, the novels of the 60s. We can't be literary historians yet. Not about the last two seasons.

RB: This is where I get to trot out my favorite Chinese maxim, Chou En Lai, People's Republic of China number-two-man under Mao was asked his thoughts on the French Revolution. He responded, 'Too soon to tell.'

GC: Exactly.

RB: That is also a feature of our cultural awareness. Which explains the massive rise of punditry. Everybody is instantaneously supposed to be telling you what something means the moment it is happening.

GC: Which, of course, means that 90 percent of it is irrelevant.

RB: That's generous.

GC: Yeah, you are right. Ninety-eight.

RB: So where is the demand coming from? Oh I know where it's coming from. Is it real? Do people really want this kind of commentary?

GC: No, of course not. But it's like the air inside your house. Everybody is hard-wired. You have on the evening news. I don't know how much information pours into people's minds.

RB: Yeah, it's in the air. It's like knowing things about Michael Jackson even if you could care less about him.

GC: I remember stopping at some point with a friend of mine, who is about my age and he went, 'Why do I know this?' I thought there it is, this is the question we each have to ask ourselves twice a day.

RB: Do you pay no attention to these, what to call them?

GC: Slugfests?

RB: Cultural slugfests.

GC: It's hard to completely walk away from them but I don't know that they matter in the long run. And I don't know much about these two.

RB: Did you pay attention last year to Michael Kinsley's glib revelations about his service as a National Book Award judge? His unabashed public stance about what he did and did not read…

GC: I read his piece.

RB: Did you think it was an important issue?

GC: He was a lot more loose-lipped than I would have wanted him to be had I been Neil Baldwin [recently retired executive director of the National Book Foundation] or somebody on that jury.

RB: Did his public posturing seem self-serving?

GC: I don't know Kinsley. I've been a judge and I have been on a lot of juries. I have never known anybody – if anybody was that cavalier – I certainly don't think they would admit it to their fellow jurors or go on the record about it. Jurying is a thankless job. The money, if it even exists, is nothing. Often people are not even aware that you are a juror, so you do it for the love of the game, not even the awards, for the novel itself. Most people I know who go on those kind of juries, are mules. They are really pack mules.

RB: What is the value of these awards? National Book Award, American Book Award, Pulitzer, Booker… IMPAC, Nobel.

GC: I'm put in an a weird position here since I have one in my pocket.

RB: [laughs]

GC: It's that joke about the guy who says, 'They never mattered until the year I won and now they mean everything.' [laughs] They are political until the year you win.

RB: Lets just talk about fiction, so you are not directly conflicted. When I talked with Will Self I thought his view of awards was worth repeating, 'How do you win at fiction?'

GC: Well, Doctorow said famously, 'Literature is not a horse race.' Which is totally true.

RB: And yet people take the awards seriously, writers seem to…

GC: What are you asking me? Who does it benefit or what does it matter?

RB: Let's go with what does it matter?

GC: Most writers will say that it doesn't matter. The ways in which it can matter, and I say this as someone who has tried to be very thoughtful about unrecognized writers – if a writer gets some recognition as a nominee or a finalist for a major award, that will often insure that he will have readership or a publishing advance that will help him or her in the future. That is one's noble ambition as a judge. I always try to read with the idea that it will put a beautiful book in people's hands that might not otherwise know about it. It's really about the dissemination of information on that level.

RB: Is it really the case that it is meaningful to be nominated or short-listed or whatever it's called.

GC: Oh God, I think so.

RB: Is the winner arbitrary?

GC: I don't think it's arbitrary.

RB: There is one book that's clearly far-and-away better than the others?

GC: I have felt, depending upon the years that I have done it, there is one that's like, 'Oh my God.' By far, head and shoulders beyond the rest. And other years where any of them will do, they are all equally good in different ways. So it really depends. I can't generalize about that.

RB: In music and film, the industry has many ways of rewarding and influencing its friends in the so-called critical establishment – junkets, access, and other lesser ways. In the publishing world does the publisher have any sway with influential critics? Can a publisher affect you in anyway?

GC: God I hope not. In the world of junkets I have to say as somebody who has been at this for a long time, most reputable critics that are staff writers in any field, music etc., can not and will not take junkets. They can't do it. So, even if they do, they are not going to give somebody, a new Springsteen, a great review because they were flown out to L.A. Maybe I am being naive. I hope those days are over in terms of the actual influence on the evaluative piece. The only thing I know that publishers do is try to get your attention. I certainly don't think there is anything overriding…

RB: There wouldn't seem to be anything that they can do. In movies and music it's access to talent that is vital to much writing that covers those areas.

GC: You mean for feature stories? I suppose they could do that if they ply you with, 'Will you come to the Ritz and see whomever?'

RB: But it doesn't matter to you because it still comes down to you and the book.

GC: For me, I won't interview someone I am reviewing.

RB: I am not aware that you do interviews.

GC: I used to. I did up until a certain point about 10 years ago. Yeah and I interviewed a lot of writers that I really wanted to hang out with, sometimes for days. And then I just got really tired of transcribing.

RB: Yeah, right, there is that downside. You wouldn't send it out to someone for transcription?

GC: I wish. I believed that you had to have that inflection and you remembered so much stuff while you were doing it. So no, I never did.

RB: What started you on… [hesitates]

GC: The road to mayhem and boisterous conduct.

RB: Yeah. What was your first love in literature?

GC: Oh God! [long pause] I don't even know what you mean.

RB: One writer I spoke with recently told me that as a young girl she was impressed with Zola and Balzac.

GC: Humph. How young?

RB: We would say precociously young. Ten.

GC: That's so sweet. I wasn't reading Balzac that young. What can I say?

RB: I suspect that for many people there is a lever…

GC: A touchstone? I'm writing about this now. So I am actually thinking my way through a lot of this.

RB: Your own life?

GC: Yeah and my life as influenced by the reading mind. My answers are far too long [for this moment]. In a funny way my consciousness takes me back to the act of reading itself more than any particular book [pause] A kind of almost aggressive athletics of consciousness, if you will.

RB: I ask you that and this moment I don't have a book I can identify either. Maybe [Thomas Pynchon's] V was the first book that I was really startled by, 'What's that? What's going on here?'

GC: And you were seven?

RB: Yeah.

GC: [laughs]

RB: There is this wonderful volume by that Polish Nobel Prize winner whose name I can't pronounce…

GC: Or spell.

RB: The book was Non-required Reading [by Wistlawa Szymborska]. It was a collection of prose pieces that she put together prompted by the 'Books Received' sections of many literary journals, assuming many book never are even mentioned there. Her introduction concluded with this majestic paragraph about the splendor of reading. And how it separated human beings and how it gave us so much.

GC: Right. right.

RB: To read that, I fell in love with this writer for her being able to say and express the value of reading so wonderfully:

Szymborska: I am old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels and performs elaborate rituals. I don't wish to diminish the significance of these attractions – without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and, possibly, dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities, above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he's capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his curiosity. He's permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he'll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he's free – and no other hobby can promise this – to eavesdrop on Montaigne's arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.

So that digression aside, what you are saying is that it was just the reading in your formative years…

GC: I think it's the realization that you have been granted entrance into an infinite world of imagination. It's that simple whether you are reading a primer at the age of five or Dostoyevsky as a melancholy teenager. There is something heart-stopping about knowing that you can sit down with a lot of black etchings on white and go into another universe and stay there, often, as long as you need. Obviously, that separates us from sometimes each other and sometimes the rest of the world.

RB: Do you pay attention to the studies about the rise and fall of literacy?

GC: I don't. In terms of demographics and real numbers and what that means. No.

RB: Are you susceptible to despair by being told that no one reads anymore? Kids don't read?

GC: Literacy figures are different from the idea that kids don't read or that no one reads. Those are two different things. And yeah, I am depressed by it.

RB: I'm talking about literate literacy.

GC: I find that sad and appalling and not necessarily futile. I don't have kids so I don't know how I would feel watching a child eschew the written word for the video. And I suspect we won't know what kind of damage has been done for a decade or two.

RB: I have recently talked to a number of 20-something writers and they feel like television is a generational fault line and perhaps even the digitalization of music and sampling is another fault line that allowed them to see cultural objects in smaller discreet fragments and bundles.

GC: I taught recently and I was shocked by what college-aged kids had not read. And I think that was symptomatic of the last time I taught college was in the early '80s. So it had been about two decades since I had actually seen… it seemed to me to be that they were unbelievably Web savvy but when I asked, 'Has anyone heard of Joan Didion?' it was like half the class raised their hands.

RB: I talked to Darin Strauss who teaches at NYU and he told me that many of the kids in his freshman classes don't know who Kurt Colbain was.

GC: That is shocking to me. Why is that?

RB: My take is that the moment is shrinking. Our window of before and after is getting smaller. I think.

GC: That's so interesting. I wonder if it's true

RB: Horrifying, if it is.

GC: Yeah. It also means we are all going to know different stuff.

RB: Sure. Perhaps the notion of the Renaissance person or the grasshopper mind will be revived.

GC: The dilettante. It will take on a new meaning.

RB: On the other hand young writers do read. I just talked to a youngster who had recently discovered Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and loved it.

GC: That's excellent. I'm surprised he discovered Richard Yates. I don't think, of him as in the curriculum.

RB: And he was proud to say that he was reading East of Eden before Oprah resurrected and ballyhooed it. At least one good thing about the burgeoning population of writing programs is that there will be more readers.

GC: Sure. I think that's true.

RB: It does seem like lots of values and I wish I had a more elegant way of asking this about the way we want to criticize the cultural moment and frequently it comes off sophomoric, 'See there's another sign of civilization's declining. Look at the crap on television! Or look at that.' We can dismiss some of that as grumbling but there are signs of a degradation of values and on the other hand there is evidence that wonderful things still take place – where is the comfort we can draw from that? Would you paint a tragic picture here?

GC: That's too hard. I could argue either side. I don't want to get into that – what I think a lot of journalists get paid to do, which is to expound at large about the culture because then I could argue the other side the next day. And you say for every idiot out there wanting to make it onto Oprah who has nothing to say there is somebody else who is wonderful who is sitting in a garret creating a beautiful line of poetry right now.

RB: Maybe I am trying to frame a meaningless question. In point of fact, to be a difference it has to make a difference.

GC: Right, the world is spinning into destruction and creation simultaneously.

RB: And while it is doing that you are about to officially embark on writing your memoir. Will you be secluding yourself to write this book?

GC: No, I suspect my life will hardly change in terms of the way I live. I work at home now. And I read and I write and I do both those things inside my house.

RB: Yes, but we are talking about writing a book.

GC: Yes, this is true. But I suspect I will keep doing what I do – which is walk the dog, write. Walk the dog, row. Walk the dog, write.

The number of people who assume that novel is the ne plus ultra, that's what is to be aspired to, is shocking to me. There are writers who want to write the great American novel and they don't even know what that means.

RB: [both laugh] Is this a way of your saying that you are not at all – you would say that you are fearful or anxious about the prospect of creating this book. No anxieties? You know the story, I guess.

GC: Anything that is worth doing is going to provoke exhilaration and despair both. I mean, yes. I hope I know the story. I am partly intrigued by some of what we have been talking about – what I described as the athletics of consciousness. I am remembering things that I did not know I remembered. And there is something hugely poignant and affirming to me about being able to see this little life as all lives tend to be by themselves within the lens of what I have been doing, which is, reading my whole life. So I have great hopes and, of course, I am apprehensive too. It would be hubristic not to say that.

RB: Was there any thought about knowing your life and then the difficulty of having it make sense on the page to other people.

GC: Oh God yeah.

RB: You realized it all along as you intended to write your memoir or was there a moment? Is it such an obvious thing the difference in talking about your life and writing about it, than knowing your life – is that obvious?

GC: It's obvious to me. Because I'm in it. I don't know that that's an obvious point. I suspect that every writer would know that that's true. There is the life and there is the narrative of the life.

RB: Yes, the writer knows that writing about something is different than the thing.

GC: Right. Exactly, than the experience of it.

RB: I am fascinated by the notion of autobiography in all writing. How much writers will admit that their tastes and values and experiences are all funneled into their writing. Some writers are more restrained in acknowledging the ways they show up in their writing. And others like David Shields gleefully will say it's all about them.

GC: Are we talking about fiction now?

RB: I'm talking about all writing…

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Bright Precious Thing jacket Let's Take the Long Way Home jacket A Strong West Wind jacket
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