Posts Tagged ‘Tobias Wolff’

Join us on Monday, Oct. 24, for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, an American masterpiece!

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”


Almost forgotten, now a classic

Zora Neale Hurston was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Then she all but disappeared, finally working in obscurity as a substitute teacher and a maid before her 1960 death in a county welfare home. The folklorist, anthropologist, and writer left behind four novels as well as short stories, plays, and essays. Foremost among them is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the passionate, exuberant tale of a woman’s journey to reclaim herself. The book will be Another Look’s fall offering.

For thirty years after its 1937 publication, Their Eyes was out of print and attacked for its portrayal of black people, when it was remembered at all. By the 1970s, however, it had been rediscovered as a masterpiece. Pulitzer prizewinning author Alice Walker wrote, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”


Aleta, a Stanford star

Join us for a discussion of this short, mesmerizing American classic at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 24, at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center on the Stanford campus.

Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.” He will be joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford.

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before.

The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats. Books are available at the Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.



The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.


Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.

Tobias Wolff’s advice as a mentor: “Just don’t lose the magic.”

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Toby speaking at Stanford Libraries (photo: Sonia Lee)

Last fall, the New Yorker ran a story about author Tobias Wolff, recent recipient of a National Medal for the Arts. The article describes Stanford’s generous and gifted writer in his less celebrated role as a mentor. George Saunders, the author, makes a great witness; he is a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships – Toby’s mentoring, in this case, was very successful. The New Yorker piece is taken from a new book, A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, University of Massachusetts Press). 

In case there are a few others who missed the story (as I had), I humbly offer this late post, with an arrow back to Saunders’s original story, “My Writing Education: A Timeline” here. Saunders’s charming mini-memoir goes some way to explaining why Toby is one of the most beloved faculty members at Stanford. And it’s a good thing it’s charming, because, as Saunders writes later: “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that ‘a light goes on’ is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on.”

The friendship had its beginnings in February 1986, when Toby called the home of Saunders’s parents in Amarillo, Texas to tell him he had been admitted to the Syracuse Creative Writing Program, where Toby was teaching back in the 80s: “I call back, holding Back in the World in my hands. … He’s kind and patient and doesn’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that myself, once I hang up.”

Inauspicious beginnings…perhaps, but it got better:

“After the orientation meeting the program goes dancing. Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

“I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

mannerofbeing Not so fast! The next day: “I wake, chagrined at my over-familiarity, and vow to thereafter keep a respectful distance from Professor Wolff and his refrigerator.”

Perhaps my favorite passage, which is very Toby, from later that semester:

At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”

Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.

“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.

I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter.


Gratitude. (Photo David Shankbone, Creative Commons)

Last anecdote, and you’re on your own (you’ll have to read the rest of the story here):”Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.” I’ve seen it, too. He’s a great all-round human being, and greatly adored. Perhaps he was a good role model for Saunders’s own long marriage with writer Paula Redick, a writer he met in those early days at Syracuse. They were engaged in three weeks, “a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands.”

Oh, I know, you read all that stuff about Toby retiring last year. Yeah, I believed it, too. Read about him coming out of retirement, and much else, in a Q&A at the Stanford Daily here.

J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country on October 19! Here’s 10 things you didn’t know about the book and the author.

Saturday, October 17th, 2015
JLC n quince tree 2 09_1969 small (2)

Carr by a quince tree, 1969 (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

Stanford’s Another Look book club spotlights masterpieces that have been forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise just haven’t received the audience they merit. J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country fits the bill perfectly. Other than an excellent biography by Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman, you’ll find little on the pitch-perfect book or its idiosyncratic, stubborn, and deeply private author.

That’s another reason to come to the Another Look discussion of A Month in the Country will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street on the Stanford campus. The conversation will be moderated by Robert Pogue Harrison, Another Look’s new director, along with acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English, and Jane Shaw, dean of religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

Parking is readily available around Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself. Humble Moi will be at the front door by 6 p.m. for early arrivals, just to make sure you get in and save a seat.

Meanwhile, here’s ten things you probably didn’t know about the book or its author:

1. Carr’s book was born of a frustrating, decade-long endeavor to save a dilapidated 14th century Northamptonshire church. Read about it here.

2. “Splendid in their day – but not now.” Old English churches today are a staid affair, compared with their previous lives in the medieval centuries, where they were a riot of texture and color. Plus a short BBC film clip about how the stunning restoration of a Welsh church changed a village – which sheds some background on Tom Birkin’s labor to uncover a 14th century painting. Read about it here.

carrbook3. “He was my Dad, he wasn’t exceptional to me.'” J.L. Carr’s son doesn’t quite understand the fuss. “Carr was not an open man, neither was Bob, so theirs had been a perfectly friendly relationship with few confidences exchanged but no confrontations either,” wrote Carr’s biographer. “The result is that when you ask Bob Carr questions about his father, you sometimes feel you might just as well as be asking them of the lodger.” Read about it here.

4. “Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister.” The Yorkshire accent was as mystifying to Tom Birkin as it is to Americans. Where did it come from? A short explanation, with a video clip on how the wrangling between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons can still be heard on the Yorkish tongue today. It’s here.

5. “This was the book nobody rejected, because they did not get the chance,” wrote Byron Rogers of A Month in the Country. But here are a few of the few words that have been said about this 1980 classic.

6. “’It was a sort of stage-magic’ : the Yorkshire countryside.” If you’ve never been to Yorkshire, here‘s your chance. A short video about the dales, rivers, and ethos of England’s enchanting county, a backdrop for Carr’s novel.

jlc wales head&shoulders

The author in Wales. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

7. “Hell? Passchendaele had been hell.” In the terrible history of the 20th century, the horrors of World War I were quickly overwhelmed by a greater war, but Passchendaele was unforgettable for those who remember the fear and the mud. It also marked the Germans’ introduction of mustard gas. Read about it here.

8. Penelope Fitzgerald, J.L. Carr, and the “death of the spirit we must fear.” The Booker award-winning author discusses Carr’s “nostalgia for something we have never had.” Read it here.

9. “Apples are the only exam I could ever hope to pass.” Carr would have been aware of the invasion of commercial apples, which was beginning about the time he wrote A Month in the Country. Have English apple-eaters have been seduced by the shiny red skins of foreign rivals? Read about it here.

10. Why Sara van Fleet and Wensleydale? Why did Carr pluck the Sara van Fleet rose for Alice Keach? And what’s so special about Wensleydale? Find out here.

Stanford’s Another Look book club reborn with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

JLC n quince tree 2 09_1969 small (2)

The author next to a quince tree, 1969. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.

One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals, and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.

From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.

The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)

Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.

For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

jlc wales head&shoulders (1)

Silent, watchful. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

“When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias,” said Harrison. “Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship. And here we are, ready to go.”

Carr’s pitch-perfect short novel earned a Guardian Fiction Prize and was short-listed for a prestigious Booker Prize when it was published. The book’s fame was briefly outstripped by the 1987 film version, which effectively marked the film debuts of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson. The highly praised film was neglected after its release and finally rescued from oblivion by determined fans in recent years. The book, however, has a brisker pace, a quiet wit, a charm of its own – and a more enduring life.

“I read A Month in the Country about 10 years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes and themes,” said Harrison. “If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.”

carrbookCarr was the son of a Yorkshire stationmaster who was also a Wesleyan lay preacher. He eventually moved to Northamptonshire, where he was a teacher and schoolmaster for decades. He had a reputation for eccentricity: on school sports days, for example, he would set up Arithmetic Races where students had to complete sums at trackside blackboards before running on.

He decided to chuck it and become a writer. His first novel was published when he was in his 50s. To make ends meet, he founded Quince Tree Press, a publishing house that offered hand-illustrated county maps, idiosyncratic dictionaries and small, 5″ X 3.5″ editions of great poets, for less than the cost of a greeting card. It published the works of J.L. Carr as well – and still does.

But it was hard for Carr to build a literary reputation when each of his books was entirely different, in style, subject and outlook. The Harpole Report, for example, is a novel mostly in the form of a teacher’s log; the comedy writer Frank Muir called it “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.” As a result, Carr had a cult following, but no mainstream success until A Month in the Country.

Fame didn’t change him. He remained in Kettering, Northamptonshire, publishing books at Quince Tree Press, which is now headed by his son, Bob Carr. The author died in 1994 of leukemia, at age 81.

His biographer Byron Rogers described his visit to Carr’s deathbed as “uneasy bonhomie on my part, and silence and watchfulness on his.” Then he adds, “Though the irony is that most conversations with Jim Carr had been like that.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles about J.L. Carr and other information on the Oct. 19 discussion.


Firth and Branagh in the celebrated and long-lost film.

Tobias Wolff at the White House for the National Medal of Arts!

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

“A social act, in solitude.” (Screenshot from the White House)

“Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing,” Tobias Wolff once wrote. It certainly seems to be the case for him: he just bagged one of the top awards in America, a few short months after his formal retirement!

Toby was at the White House today, where President Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for writers, artists, and art patrons.  Who could deserve it more? He has been a generous mentor and guiding spirit to so many at Stanford and beyond – and I, personally, am grateful for many kindnesses. And that’s before we’ve even gotten to his novels, memoirs, and collections of short stories! Oh, and the articles, most recently in The New Yorker – I wrote about one of them here. The Book Haven has written about him here and here and here and here. And he was on the Colbert Report here.

medal_big-revA video of the White House award is on youtube here. According to the citation, “With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience.” Well, others have put it better. Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, “Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff’s main theme.”

Here’s what Toby himself said on the occasion of his glory: “Every award is special to me, as a reminder that the work you perform in solitude is also a social act – that you’re not just talking to yourself, that what you do can stir a response in others. It’s easy to forget that, when you spend your hours sweating over the choice of a word, taking semicolons out and putting them back in. But of course I’m not so jaded as not to feel particular gratitude at receiving this award from the hands of our president – a man I greatly admire.”

It’s not his first award by a longshot. By my reckoning, that would be way back in 1981, when Toby received the O. Henry Award for “In the Garden of North American Martyrs,” and the following year for “Next Door.” He won the same award a third time, in 1985, for “Sister.” The same year he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for The Barracks Thief. 1989 brought two more awards: a Whiting Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography for This Boy’s Life. In 1989, was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story. In 2006, he won the PEN/Malamud Award. In 2008, he was awarded The Story Prize for the Our Story Begins: New and Collected Stories. That’s a lot of awards. (And his film adaptations are another kind of accolade – This Boy’s Life became a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin; in 2001, his short story “Bullet in the Brain” was made into a short film.)

What can we say besides … Congratulations, Toby! So much has been said about him, and I’ve written about him so much myself – in addition to the links above, here and here and here and here. And on one of his birthdays, I reprinted some of his excellent words about being a writer – it’s here. But I never really thought of him as epigrammatic, until I found these passages in the course of an online search. So I share them, in the spirit of celebration:


Presiding over Another Look book club last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.”

“Lose Faith. Pray anyway. Persist. We are made to persist, to complete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.”

“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.”

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is “depressing” because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; “witty stories,” in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; “upbeat” stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown ups now.”


With Stanford Humanities Center Director Caroline Winterer for Another Look book club. (Photo: David Schwartz)

“In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

“I was giving up – being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter.”

“When your power comes from others, on approval, you are their slave. Never sacrifice yourselves – never! Whoever urges you to self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat himself, without persuading YOU to do it.”

“Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

“The very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. So many of the things in our world lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.”

“Want! You must want something. What do you want?”

“There’s no right way to tell all stories, only the right way to tell a particular story.”

So long see you tomorrow, Toby! An evening of Camus, crowds, and many fond farewells.

Saturday, June 6th, 2015



I present some surprises to Toby. Another Look’s graphic designer Zoë Patrick at left. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Stanford’s Another Look book club was born of one man’s love for a short novel – that is, acclaimed author Tobias Wolff‘s love of William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow, which became the first book discussed in the three-year series. He wanted to share the book not just with colleagues, but the the world. He called Another Look “a gift to the community.” (We’ve written about it here and here and here and a zillion other places). So it was fitting that we concluded the era Toby’s directorship with a Maxwell tribute. Why “see you tomorrow”? Because he’s not going far. He’s simply beginning his well-earned retirement. He’ll be around. Meanwhile, the future of the highly successful program he founded is uncertain. We’ll see what happens. Cross your fingers. Burn incense. Whatever works.


Toby begins – a little amazed at the turn-out. (Photo: D. Schwartz)

The Monday discussion of Albert CamusThe Stranger was a knockout event – the turn-out beyond anything we had anticipated. It was way beyond standing room only. The room was impassable, with a mob in the doorway, and another outside the sliding doors to the patio, opened so a smaller crowd could listen in. People sat on the floor in the aisles. There was no place in the room that didn’t have people in it. (I squatted behind the podium and couldn’t see anyone on the panel – you could say I had audio, but not visual, reception.) It was, in short, a love-bomb.

The photos above and below don’t quite capture the size of the crowd – photographer David Schwartz, who happened to be in the audience, didn’t have much choice about what he could capture at all. The fans who were lucky enough to have seats were so jam-packed that he couldn’t move.

David couldn’t photograph all three panelists together – so we augment his photos with one of Marie-Pierre Ulloaa scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria, taken by Remmelt Pit.

No surprise that the discussion was lively and wide-ranging. Intellectual and cultural historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center, and Toby are old friends, as their spirited exchanges show in the photos. The audience was bubbling with questions – more than the panelists could possibly answer. Many of them focused on the four extra shots fired by Meursault into the Arab – in Matthew Ward‘s esteemed “American” translation (read about him here) is rendered “And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

camus-9All in all, it was a wonderful send-off for Toby’s retirement – we presented him with a signed first edition of the late William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream, a collection of his essays from The New Yorker – fitting, because Toby himself is a regular contributor to the magazine.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the edition of Maxwell’s later novels from Brookie and Kate Maxwell, the author’s daughters, who have appreciated Toby’s attention to their father’s legacy, and his efforts for Another Look more generally. Brookie, also a photographer, included a photograph of her father that she had taken – the photograph with the kitten; you can see it here.


Teamwork: Toby and Caroline. (Photo: David Schwartz)


A spirited exchange between Toby and Caroline (Photo: David Schwartz)


Toby makes a face; Marie-Pierre giggles. (Photo: Remmelt Pit)

More honored than read? Albert Camus’s The Stranger reconsidered

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

FRANCE. Paris. French writer Albert CAMUS. 1944.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1944 photo in Paris. (Courtesy Magnum/Cartier-Bresson)


I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is drenched in the North African sun, but heat and light take an ominous turn. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s tale of a senseless murder on the hot Mediterranean beach has been a staple of high-school classes for decades, ever since it was published by the up-and-coming writer in 1942. But does it carry a new meaning for our time?

Acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff has chosen The Stranger for the Another Look book club event at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 1 at the Stanford Humanities Center.  With Tobias Wolff’s retirement at the end of this academic year, the spring event on Camus’ The Stranger will be the last in the popular three-year series.

Gary Ward

Translator Matthew Ward (Courtesy Ward family)

Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look, will moderate the final event. He will be joined by cultural and intellectual historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center; and Stanford lecturer Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria who has received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the nation’s highest cultural honors. The event is free and open to the public.

According to Wolff, “The Stranger is not an overlooked book. But I believe that among adult readers it is more honored than read. We usually encounter it in our student days, and I doubt that many of us read it again later on.

“Yet it’s very much worth our renewed attention in this moment for the questions it raises about our attempts to find meaning in our lives, about the often violent encounters of different cultures, about the way we create consoling, even heroic, narratives to explain and absolve ourselves while remaining willfully blind to the personal and social forces that actually drive us, about the question of free will – do we have it? –  and about the problematic nature of institutional justice and punishment, indeed of all human judgment.

The event will spotlight the translation of Matthew Ward, who learned French at Stanford. He died of AIDS in 1990, two years after his translation was published, and a year after it received a PEN award. In a New York Times article, Ward said he used an “American method” to translate Camus.

“He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences,” said Ward, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1973. “My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.”

According to the New York Review of Books, Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.”

Camus was born in 1913. His father died less than a year later in the Battle of the Marne. His illiterate mother moved with her two sons into a cramped family apartment without electricity or running water. Camus wrote that poverty “was never a misfortune for me: it was always counterbalanced by the richness of light. And, because it was free from bitterness, I found mainly reasons for love and compassion in it. Even my rebellions at the time were illuminated by this light. They were essentially – and I think I can say it without misrepresentation – rebellions in favor of others. It is not certain that my heart was inclined to this kind of love.”

strangerWith the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in the same year, Camus became a public figure and an existential legend, though he eschewed the link with Jean-Paul Sartre‘s philosophy. Within a few years, he would also become a hero of the Résistance in occupied France. During the war years, he formed an important friendship with Sartre, and also a rivalry with the man who called him “the street urchin from Algiers.” Their break, over Camus’ refusal to justify or excuse the atrocities of Stalin as they became known, would be as famous as their camaraderie.

The 1957 Nobel Committee hailed Camus “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960 – some claimed it was a Soviet secret police job, although proof has been elusive.

He left behind a range of novels, plays, essays and short stories, but perhaps none as enduring and popular as The Stranger, with its anti-hero Meursault, who is condemned, not so much for murder, as for “not weeping at his mother’s funeral,” according to the author. Camus, an avowed atheist, said enigmatically, “Meursault is the only Christ that we deserve.”

The books will be available at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Stanford Bookstore on campus and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.


The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Join us on March 5!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

baldwin-bookMichele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time“because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”

Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.

The book has two parts: Baldwin’s essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which originally ran in the New Yorker, and also “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” a shorter piece that Elam called “a meditation on the fragility of black boyhood.”

Baldwin wrote to his nephew of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and his countrymen “do not know it and do not want to know it. He added, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

He claimed in the longer essay that white men project their fears and their longings onto African Americans. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the first of nine children. He never knew his biological father, but his stepfather was a harsh preacher. At school he studied with Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and worked on the high school magazine with Richard Avedon, who would become a world famous photographer. The book dwells briefly on his precocious and brief teenage career as an evangelical preacher. He moved to Greenwich Village at 17 to be a writer. A British television journalist recalled that when he started his career he was black, impoverished and homosexual – how disadvantaged can you get? “No, I thought I hit the jackpot,” he said, grinning. Then after the laughter subsided, added, “It’s so outrageous you could not go any further, so you had to find a way to use it.”

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

Use it he did. He wrote than a score of fiction and non-fiction works, including novels, essays, and plays. The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies, and put Baldwin’s face on the cover of Time magazine. The award-winning author was a popular speaker – lively, epigrammatic, scathingly witty, passionate and deeply humane. He eventually settled in the south of France, where he was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor the year before his death of cancer in 1987.

The Fire Next Time is one of the great books of the last century,” said Wolff, who teaches the book every fall. “With forensic calm born of rage, Baldwin performs an autopsy on the self-flattering myths by which we blind ourselves to the radical injustices of our society,  even as we congratulate ourselves on its moral superiority. Grounded in historical and personal experience, relentlessly logical, his words burn as hot today as when they left his pen.”

Certainly the book changed minds and lives. When he was still a graduate student, Bob Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries spent all night reading the book and the next day bought a camera and began photographing the Civil Rights movement. A few years later, at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? The Green Library exhibition continues through March 18.

Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto have copies ofThe Fire Next Time.


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. Another Look also invites readers far away to join us in reading the book, and to send us comments. Podcasts of previous events are on the website.

Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore”

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

An optimist against the odds: Dave Eggers talks to Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Imagine you send someone a letter. You are eager to know your recipient’s reaction to your correspondence. So you drive over to his house, park, crouch in the bushes so that you have a view of his living room window, so you can see the moment when he opens the envelope, and …

Wait a minute. It’s not so far from the truth. Author Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s, recalled an incident a dozen years ago when he received an email. A few days later, his correspondent asked him what he thought about it. Eggers said he’d been buried in work, and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Not true, his correspondent said. He’d opened it at 4:27 p.m. a day earlier. The fellow had the ability to get a receipt when someone opened his email. For Eggers, it was a moment when “a friend crosses what would have once been a boundary” and “your right to know what happens to your letter exceeds my right to privacy.” While it’s commonplace today, Eggers felt the the friend had “stepped way outside the behavior I want in a friend.”


“You can’t go back, you can only go further.” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

His newest novel, The Circle, studies our hunger for constant communication. The eponymous center of the book is a Bay Area high tech giant that feeds on our privacy as it creates a utopian culture for its employees. Sound familiar? “Some of the most idealistic people I know are working at these companies,” said Eggers.

He was in conversation with author Tobias Wolff last month, during a packed event at Encina Hall on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore,” in Wolff’s words. The occasion, sponsored by the Stanford Creative Writing Program, the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Humanities Center, may have been a record-breaker for attendance, or at least among the Top 10. Staff hurriedly tried to put up an extra simulcast screen in the lobby to accommodate the hordes. I arrived late, having spent 40 minutes looking for parking, before finally abandoning my car across campus and sprinting to the event. I squatted in a corner in the simulcast room upstairs, and peered at the conversation on a big screen. The event had already started…

“An insatiable hunger to know drives everybody,” said Eggers, and it’s enabled by technological gimcracks and software that make information-gathering – or spying, in some cases – easy. For example, a father can track the movements of his daughter, whether she’s in another state or in her boyfriend’s car. “It’s cheap, it’s easy, you don’t have to get up or hire anybody.”

“Why trust when you can track? It gets scary.”

Wolff said his horror at the NSA revelations “will tell you where I am on the technological scale.” Although he was “shocked to learn all our emails and phone calls are vacuumed up by the government,” he got another jolt when, in a conversation, he learned that one of his bright young students “doesn’t see anything wrong.”

“How used to being under surveillance this generation is!” said Wolff. We’ve all heard the commonplace rejoinder – if you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, what’s the problem? Said Wolff: “Who decides what is ‘wrong’? It could be a political stand you have taken.”

“We’re so marinated in the custom of being surveilled that we have grown a thick skin to it.”

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.”

“It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

index“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t’s.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

Not everyone is as unconcerned as the student Wolff described, as we slide towards a technological dystopia. Eggers was on hand when The Circle came out three weeks earlier in Germany. “Their memory of Stasi is very fresh,” he said – especially thanks to movies like The Lives of Others. In America, however, we are speaking of a generation that was in diapers when East Germany’s Stasi was dissolved.

Are you depressed yet? Apparently Eggers isn’t. “People will do the right thing when there are laws and when there are parameters which we have discussed,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the good of human nature.”


Signing books afterwards. (Photo: Rod Searcey)