Posts Tagged ‘Steve Wasserman’

Intellect, critic, provocateur Scott Timberg: “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

Saturday, December 14th, 2019
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I didn’t know Los Angeles cultural journalist and author Scott Timberg, but it seemed all my friends did. The Los Angeles Times obituary called him “a ferocious listener and reader whose cultural appetites fueled his career as an author and journalist in Los Angeles and led him to question the future of the arts in the internet age.” Timberg died on Tuesday. He was 50.

“His death by suicide shocked us all while also silencing a voice of tremendous insight and eloquence about so, so many things that he loved,” wrote the writer’s brother, Craig Timberg, in a message to friends.

The Palo Alto-born journalist wrote Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life. The acclaimed book was published in 2015 by Yale University Press.

Ted Gioia recalls “earnestness and enthusiasm”

“You could talk to him about virtually any subject,” wrote friend and author Ted Goia. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who combined earnestness and enthusiasm (typically opposed traits) in such a high degree.”

An excerpt from the obituary:

Timberg’s cultural explorations continued after The Times laid him off amid budget cuts in 2008, and the Timberg family had to relinquish their home. Timberg began to question conventional wisdom about the internet boosting opportunities for writers, artists, musicians and others.

Between freelance assignments for clients including the New York Times, Timberg gradually assembled the manuscript that became Culture Crash and took it to Steve Wasserman, who edited the book for Yale University Press and now serves as publisher and executive director of Heyday.

The book, wrote reviewer Richard Brody in the New Yorker, is “a quietly radical rethinking of the very nature of art in modern life.”

Timberg’s lament for the creative class “seemed to have been written with a pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood,” Wasserman said Friday. He called Timberg a man of “exquisite, promiscuous curiosities” whose death “is the moral equivalent of a book-burning.”

“A pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood”

“He could write about music better than any other literary journalist, and he could write about literature better than any other music journalist,” said David Kipen, a friend, editor and founder of the nonprofit Boyle Heights lending library Libros Schmibros.

Said his friend and editor Joe Donnelly, “His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.”

After discussing his book, the L.A. Times says: “The sting of those disappointments, friends and family said, never seemed to fade.” It wasn’t clear whether it was the disappointment in  the digital technology and economic polarization, or being laid off and losing one’s home. I know what it is like to live as a free-lancer in the “gig economy.”

I look forward to reading his book. He will be missed.

Read the whole thing here. Tweets from NBC news journalist Dennis Romero, Ted Gioia, and the Los Angeles Times‘s Tom Curwen.

New Sontag bio: “a voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism”? A friend speaks out.

Saturday, October 5th, 2019
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The New York Times called Ben Moser’s Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco) “a landmark biography, the first major reintroduction of an incomparable literary heavyweight to the public since her death.” Leslie Jamison, writing in The New Republic, called it “utterly riveting and consistently insightful . . . The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse—formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work—and makes her life-size again . . . fascinating.” I haven’t read it yet. However, her close friend, Steve Wasserman has, and he disagrees. (He’s spoken about her before on The Book Haven, here and here.)

His mini-review below:

Ben Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag is appallingly reductive. Her actual writings and ideas interest him rather less than what he construes as her private life. He is transfixed by the halo of celebrity that seemed to hover above Sontag during her life and which, even after her death, continues to glow. As a result, his biography is strikingly coarse and prurient, mocking and condescending, even as it pretends to an unearned seriousness of purpose, accompanied by a style designed to tell readers what to think and feel. He accuses Sontag of being a coward about her sexuality, a narcissistic diva, a person whose efforts to transform herself are derided as comic.

Suppose he is right. What does this have to do with the work — her writings — which is, after all, why we ought to care, if we care at all, about Susan Sontag. If people think the work is no good, or at least that it’s wildly overrated, fine, then they should say so. But if the work has any true and lasting merit, then this voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism is, to say the least, misplaced, not to mention that it seeks to have it both ways, and exploits the very fame it so condescends to. But then, condescending to Sontag while fixating on her, even when she was alive, is something so commonplace as to be tediously familiar.

Paying any attention to Sontag, especially now, fifteen years after her demise, matters only if her work matters. Everything else amounts to gossip about a person who was famous in her lifetime, or is grist for the most trivial sort of social and cultural history. Moser seems to believe that what matters most about Sontag was her effect on her contemporaries, not her work. This view is a disservice to and a caricature of the woman and writer I knew.

(Photograph above right by Andy Ross, Berkeley, circa 1995.)

“The beating heart of good prose”: Robert Alter on rhythm and translating the Hebrew Bible

Sunday, March 24th, 2019
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Alter at Berkeley’s Heyday (Photo: Wendy Ruebman)

This week, Berkeley’s Robert Alter honored a lunchtime gathering at Heyday Books with his gentle presence and his scholarly wisdom – just in time for Purim. Alter is the translator of the surprise hit of the year: the new acclaimed 3,500-page Hebrew Bible (Norton). (We’ve written about his work here and here.) He’s also the author of Princeton’s The Art of Bible Translation.

I’ve been a big fan since I read his translation of Genesis more than two decades ago, and so I lugged my big-splurge purchase of 2019, the three-volume set, for his signature. (Gauche, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he only signed one volume before he rushed off to pick up his wife.)

The largely atheist/agnostic/”none” crowd was skeptical of the foundational masterpiece of Western civilization, but in a short hour or so, the amiable, learned Alter had them eating out of his hand. Rhythm, he said, is “the beating heart of good prose” and “not merely decorative.” He spoke about the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville – “it wasn’t just icing on the cake for Melville” – and the intricacies of replicating the rhythm of ancient Hebrew. He decried “the dumbed-down modern versions – and they’re all dumbed-down.” He had to “scrape off the theological veneer” for “the detective work of language.”

I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes before his talk. I mentioned that René Girard calls the Genesis story of Joseph the first representation of forgiveness, as something more than letting go of a debt or not clubbing an enemy, after all. Alter didn’t disagree, but he pointed out that the Old Testament also shows the first hero who changes over time, i.e., “character development.” To wit: the patriarch Jacob, who begins as a trickster on the make, ends by being tricked himself, and suffers cruel loss and bereavement. On his deathbed – humbled, broken, mourning – he says: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning” (in Alter’s translation, of course). Ancient heroes like Ulysses don’t do that – when he gets back home to Ithaca after twenty years  he turns right back and heads for the sea again. (Dante condemned it, though Tennyson rendered it as an act of heroism.)

In his introduction, Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman called Alter “enviably erudite and lovely.” He is, he is.

Endangered species: book coverage in the Bay Area

Friday, March 15th, 2019
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It was a surprise for many of us to hear the news on Feb. 27: The San Francisco Chronicle told John McMurtrie, its longtime book critic and editor, that he was being laid off. He announced the news on Twitter, which is how I heard the tale. There will be no replacement, so what happens next? The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the literary capitals of the U.S. The idea that one of the nation’s top papers is stripping down its book section is bad news indeed.

I remember, in the long-ago days of the 2001, Bay Area-wide protests, spearheaded by the late great Diane Middlebrook, when the Chronicle folded its book section into the rest of the paper. From The Los Angeles Times:

…when word began leaking out a few weeks ago that the city’s major daily newspaper was reconfiguring its Sunday book review section, a howl went up from segments of the Bay Area literati. Books and the people who write and read them are taken seriously in San Francisco, home at various times to such venerable and disparate persons of letters as Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg.

Accordingly, reports that the San Francisco Chronicle was revamping, and possibly even downsizing, its well-regarded Book Review section were treated in some quarters as a potential affront to the city’s literary self-esteem.

Middlebrook (Photo: Amanda Lane)

“You owe it to the citizens of San Francisco!” not to diminish book coverage, wrote Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University, in a recent letter urging Chronicle management not to “demote book talk to the status of infotainment.”

“You will embarrass yourselves along with every literate person in town,” wrote Middlebrook, who is spearheading a letter-writing campaign over the issue.

What is to be done? In such times, it’s good to have Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Book Review, back in the Bay Area. He’s now publisher and executive director of Heyday Books in Berkeley. Steve and Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director of Graywolf Press, He called a meeting on March 13 at Heyday’s new headquarters to discuss how best to support continued coverage of books in the Bay Area in the aftermath of the news.

Good to have you back, Steve!

A photo commemorating the event, clockwise, from lower left: Frances Dinkelspiel, author, journalist, and founder of Berkeleyside,com; Andy Ross, literary agent and former owner of Cody’s Books, Cherilyn Parsons, founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival; Calvin Crosby, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association; Leslie Jobson, Field Sales czarina of the Ingram Content Group/Publishers Group West; Praveen Madan, owner of Kepler’s Bookstore and chairman of the Board of Directors of Berrett-Koehler Publishers; T.J. Stiles, author and historian and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Steve Wasserman, publisher and executive director of Heyday and former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review; Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press; Paul Yamazaki, Chief Book Buyer for City Lights Bookstore. On the phone but not depicted: Oscar Villalon, editor of Zyzzyva literary quarterly and former books editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; March 11, 2019, Berkeley) (Photograph by Emmerich Anklam, Publisher’s Assistant and Editor at Heyday.)

A book is born! A celebratory lunch for “‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in California” with publisher, friend Steve Wasserman

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
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The Bandol Rosé was excellent.

A toast, a book, and bon appétit with Steve Wasserman at Chez Panisse. He promised me a celebratory repast for my National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar grant, and he delivered. The book that I will undertake during 2018-19 will be “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California.

What did it mean for one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20th century for to spend most of his career in California? In a 1975 poem “Magic Mountain” the lonely exile expressed his isolation and alienation this way:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
.
But he also grew to love it, even as he criticized it – and he had a career here that would have been impossible in Communist Poland.

At Chez Panisse, we demonstrated some contrary California spirit with a French wine – a 2015 Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier. Steve told me it is one of the favorites of Chez Panisse founder and chef, the legendary Alice Waters, an old friend.

He worked quickly.

He recalled stories about his good friends Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and the experience of coming back to California after decades away, his most recent port-of-call at Yale University Press, where he was editor at large. I also recalled the Polish poet’s own adventures at Chez Panisse, as related by Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. 

And I retold something that poet Robert Hass, a California native, once said after I mentioned I had grown up in Michigan. He paused a moment, and said, “Then your eye must be always searching for a shade of green it never finds here.” And so it does.

We talked about California – land of endless invention, miraculous weather, and addictive sunshine. Everywhere else is something of a disappointment. He recalled traveling through the Catskills as a child, and the adults pointing out the “mountains.” “Where?” he asked eagerly. “There!” they said. “I don’t see them!” “Over there.” Those were hills, he told me scornfully, “eroded stubs!” He pulled out a pen and swiftly drew a picture on the paper tablecloth. This, this is a mountain: snow at the top, timberline, hills at the bottom. The Sierras.

What did we eat? Normally I don’t say, but … Chez Panisse. I ordered the fettuccine with chanterelles, gremolata, and Parmesan; Steve had the summer vegetable tagine with shell beans, couscous, yogurt, and chermoula. I started with the baked andante dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces, he had the fennel and rocket salad with crème fraîche, mint, figs, and toasted almonds. We shared a bittersweet chocolate pavé with caramel ice cream and candied hazelnuts. No, we didn’t take any photos of our food. And yes, we had to ask the waiter what some of these words meant.

And I left with a celebratory gift from Steve: Heyday’s best-selling The California Field Atlas by Obi Kauffman, and a catalog of books-to-come. Spirit of the Place won’t be in it for a while yet.

Congratulations to me! I’m a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar”!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018
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The news is out! I’m a brand-new 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar.” It is obviously a great honor, and I am thrilled beyond words. The letter of announcement is here and list of recipients is here. The Washington Post story is here. As for the project I will be undertaking as an NEH Public Scholar:

“I did not choose California. It was given to me,” wrote Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. His attempt to come to grips with California was a lifelong psychological journey, and one that changed America as well as the poet himself. This story will be told in “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California, a book that was born in a British Academy talk I gave in London, 2012. It is the first book-length study to consider the Lithuanian-born Polish poet as an American.

The Berkeley poet.

It all started at a Christmas party, a year-and-a-half ago, when I was still knee-deep in bringing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard to press (Wall Street Journal review is here).  Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Time Book Review when it was the best in the nation, and more recently editor-at-large for Yale University Press, was returning to his rodina, Berkeley. He had just taken the helm at Heyday Books – in his words, “a unique cultural institution that promotes awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures and boundary-breaking ideas. Through well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, Heyday seeks to build a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

We had spoken on the phone, we had emailed each other, but we had never actually met face to face until that chilly night on December 17, 2016.

The setting was Heyday’s cozy offices on University Avenue, only a mile from Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant that is Steve’s second home. Heyday was a rabbit warren of booklined walls and dark wood paneling. Old Berkeley at its best. (It’s since had to move house, alas.)

That night, the corridors were crowded with chattering people and the tables laden with a lavish spread of potluck offerings. The band performing by the entryway made conversation improbable. Nevertheless, Steve and I found a quiet room to chat, and he told me about his new publishing initiative at Heyday called “California Lives.”

In his words again: “The series will consist of book-length biographical essays on the men and women who, taken singly and together, have built a state which is a source of relentless reinvention, a magnet for peoples the world over who have sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility.” He wondered if I had any ideas.

“Yeah, what about Czesław Miłosz?” I suggested. But … he’s Polish, he answered. “Well, we’re all from somewhere else, aren’t we?” I answered – it’s especially true in California. And, after all, the Nobel poet was a U.S. citizen – UC Berkeley’s first and only Nobelist in the humanities. Steve’s brow furrowed. But didn’t he dislike the U.S.?  And California, for that matter? Consider his arguments about Robinson Jeffers. “What could be more American than opposition?” I answered. “We’re all protesting something.” He loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Jeffers, and he engaged American culture – while always remaining ambivalent about it. I had the expertise to advance the argument: I’ve written a welter of articles about Miłosz, and have two volumes about him to my credit, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAnd I’m a longstanding Californian – though across the Bay from Miłosz’s (and Steve’s) Berkeley.

Steve was won over. Here’s what he wrote about the poet in a publisher’s statement for the NEH: “He is emblematic of a host of mid-century émigrés who sought refuge from the calamities of the twentieth century in California. It is a state that is both a place and a state of mind whose literature reflects a range of affection and unease. Miłosz’s contribution to that literature is a red thread that runs through some of his most important work, but is curiously neglected in most of the critical commentary. Heyday aims to correct that omission.”

Steve has another reason to be drawn to the subject: “I confess a personal stake in his story. I grew up in Berkeley and went to high school with his two sons. I spent time in his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Later, when I was deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion section I was among the first to interview him when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.”

Steve has also been a longstanding champion of the proposed author of the book, too. Let me conclude with some praise for my humble self:

Thank you, Steve.

“Cynthia Haven’s writing on East European and Central European writers is superb, as I know from my years publishing her reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, as a longtime resident of California, she brings to bear a deep understanding of the state and its paradoxes. She is alive to irony and knows the virtues of a short declarative sentence. She is remarkably clear without neglecting nuance. She embraces the Eros of the difficult and translates it into terms that can be grasped by ordinary readers. Her perspicacity, diligence, and acute intelligence are ideal for this necessary book on Miłosz. She will help Californians in particular, and Americans more generally, enter Miłosz’s mostly unfamiliar but remarkably influential and important world. Her gifts as a researcher and writer—indeed, as a cultural journalist—are very nearly unrivaled in this arena.”

Steve was almost as pleased as I was by the NEH honor. And of course he suggested we celebrate at Chez Panisse soon, soon…

“Everyone adored him.” Remembering legendary publisher Peter Mayer, a free-speech hero.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018
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A charismatic enfant terrible: “As gracious as he was wise.”

Publisher Peter Mayer has died at 82. “Everyone adored him,” a friend wrote to me.

I interviewed him briefly, by phone in 2002, for an article in the Times Literary Supplement (republished by  The Los Angeles Times Book Review), at the time Ardis Publishers was acquired by Overlook Press, the independent publisher that he founded with his father, Alfred Mayer, and ran for nearly fifty years. He was a charming and intelligent interviewee, but I didn’t know then he was a legend.

From Publishers Weekly: “Once one of the most charismatic publishers, known for his penchant for smoking wherever he was, Mayer had suffered a number of injuries and illnesses in recent years.

“Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.”

Praising a life “at full tilt”

Steve Wasserman now heads Berkeley’s Heyday Books, but back in 2002, he was my editor at The Los Angeles Times Book Review. He also knew the publisher well. Apparently everybody did. “Peter Mayer lived at full tilt,” he wrote. “I adored him. As generous with his smokes as he was with his advice, he always had time for me, was always encouraging, and was a deep well of marvelous stories. He was a bridge spanning the past and my own present. And somehow he was one of the most handsome men even into old age I ever met. As gracious as he was wise.”

Andy Ross, now a literary agent but then proprietor of Cody Books in Berkeley, has a special reason to remember Mayer. “I’m thinking good thoughts for Peter and his family,” he told me. “When I first became a bookseller in the 1970s, Peter was considered the enfant terrible of book publishing. It was a pretty stodgy business back then. Peter broke the mold when he became head of Pocket Books. He was young. He wore jeans. He was brilliant and charismatic. Every woman I knew had a crush on him.”

It survived the fatwa. (CreativeCommons)

When, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie‘s head for his book, Satanic Verses, Peter Mayer’s heroism – and Andy’s – came to the fore.  Andy’s bookstore Cody’s, which refused to drop the book, was bombed in the middle of the night, two weeks after the fatwa was announced – I wrote about that here.

“Peter was the head of Viking Books, Rushdie’s publisher. At the time of the bombing, Satanic Verses had sold out and there were almost no stores that had copies left. Peter called me to express his support for us and told me the new printing was coming out the following Monday. He was going to air freight our copies so that we would be the first and only store in America with the book. Oy vey!”

Unlamented.

One of the women who had a crush, and admits it, is book editor and media journalista Maureen O’Brien. “They don’t make publishers like that no more. He was the coolest,” she said. “Peter Mayer. I always had a big crush on him. From NYC cab driver to the head of Viking/Penguin Books Worldwide, he pretty much invented the publishing of trade paperbacks and kept Salman Rushdie safe and mostly sound during his time in hiding after the release of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.

“I will always remember covering the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C. and interviewing Peter at the Penguin exhibit while bomb-sniffing German Shepherds roamed the aisles of the convention center in search of Islamic terrorists. To me, he was the best kind of great.”

Missed.

From The New York Times obituary:

“I was advised by many to live like a hunted man,” he said in an oral history for the online collection Web of Stories, “and to change my address, change my car, move into a hotel.”

The controversy put not only him in jeopardy but also anyone else who worked for Penguin, but Mr. Mayer said the principles involved were important.

“Once you say I won’t publish a book because someone doesn’t like it or someone threatens you, you’re finished,” he said. “Some other group will do the same thing, or the same group will do it more.”

Steve Wasserman, Chateaubriand on the smell of home

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018
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It is a pleasure to have Steve Wasserman back on the West Coast as publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books, after years as editor-at-large at Yale University Press and, prior to that, his nine-year stint as the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, when it was the best in the nation. (We’ve written about him here and here and here.)

But the mini-reviews he occasionally offers on Facebook are equally available to all coasts, whether here or Kamchatka or North Africa. Here’s one yesterday, on one of his favorite writers, Chateaubriand.

Heading into the homestretch of my re-reading of Proust‘s last volume, “Time Regained,” and have come upon the passage I well remember–where Proust gives explicit acknowledgment to one of his most admired inspirations: the remarkable memoirs of Chateaubriand, recalling the vanished world that preceded Proust’s by a century and more.

Proust finds in Chateaubriand a kindred spirit, quoting the following sentence as having given him the same “sensation of the same species as that of the madeleine”: “Yesterday evening I was walking alone. . .I was roused from my reflections by the warbling of a thrush perched upon the highest branch of a birch tree. Instantaneously the magic sound caused my father’s estate to reappear before my eyes; I forgot the catastrophes of which I had recently been the witness [he refers here to the terrors of the French Revolution] and, transported suddenly into the past, I saw again those country scenes in which I had so often heard the fluting notes of the thrush.”

Proust then goes on to cite the following sentences as perhaps among the loveliest in Chateaubriand’s lengthy recollections: “A sweet and subtle scent of heliotrope was exhaled by a little patch of beans that were in flower; it was brought to us not by a breeze from our own country but by a wild Newfoundland wind, unrelated to the exiled plant, without sympathy of shared memory or pleasure. In this perfume, not breathed by beauty, not cleansed in her bosom, not scattered where she had walked, in this perfume of a changed sky and tillage and world there was all the diverse melancholy of regret and absence and youth.” (I too had similarly been prey to such emotions, as indeed my return to California eighteen months ago was in no small measure prompted by my inability to rid myself down the decades of the scent of night jasmine, eucalyptus, and a wee bit of the Berkeley tear gas, which had clung so insistently to my nostrils, inflaming my imagination and beckoning me to return to what even after forty years away I still considered home.)

It is to be regretted that, in 2018, nearly a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, we still have no felicitous English translation of the complete unexpurgated Chateaubriand (other than A.C. Kline’s workmanlike effort available only in an online iteration) but must instead make do with abridgments or in the case of the latest New York Review Books publication the first twelve volumes of the forty-two that exist in French. Well, it’s a start. Highly recommended.

Here’s to Hitch on “Hitchmas”: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity.”

Saturday, December 16th, 2017
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Hitchens in 2008 (Photo: Creative Commons)

An anniversary passed yesterday, the sixth year after the death of author, essayist, and journalist Christopher HitchensIt’s not an event the Book Haven normally observes, but some in our circle do – mutual friend Steve Wasserman among them, and a few others who no doubt would raise a glass if they were here. The late poet and historian Robert Conquest (we’ve written about him here and here) was a close colleague. Some of Hitchens’s aficionados, whether they knew him or not, go so far as to call December 15 “Hitchmas” – there’s even a website for the celebrations here.

The title is catchy, but surely Hitchens himself would have scoffed at the implications of any “mass” in his honor. In any case, he hated Christmas (i.e., “Christ’s mass”) which he likened to “living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state” that “imposes a deadening routine and predictability.” Ah, but variation within custom is what makes all rituals memorable and moving – whether weddings, funerals, graduations, or holidays. It’s a delicate art. (See how fellow atheist Salman Rushdie celebrates here.)

You see? We are still arguing with him, even in absentia. While Hitchens is not a demigod to us, and while we are far from embracing all his views (indeed, who could embrace them all?), we nevertheless revere his eloquence, his frankness, his pugnaciousness, the fluency of his pen, his tenacity to what he held to be truth – and so we, too, raise a glass to him. How, after all, can one argue with this: “Never be a spectator of unfairness and stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

In this case, we have help in our fête. Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library has an undated commemorative post over at the Wild River Review, which includes a two-minute clip of his interview with the author and journalist, three days before he became gravely ill in 2010. The two discuss death, dying, and a mutual interest in obituaries. (The full hour-and-a-half interview at the NYPL is here.)

“I was particularly taken not by the politics, which everyone knew and though of interest, mattered less to me just then, than the literary side. Hitch was a great reader and more candid in print about his life, his mother and father, his origins,” Holdengräber wrote.

“When I played W. H. Auden reading, and Isaiah Berlin teaching a class on Russian Thought at Oxford, Christopher’s eyes lit up. He felt pleasure in reciting poetry, moving his lips to Auden’s reading, and hearing his old professor, Isaiah Berlin talk. A less pugilist side to Hitch.”

When he asked Hitchens why he wrote his memoir Hitch 22 at the relatively young age of 60, he answered simply: “You’ve got to do it in time.”

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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