"The impulse to keep a diary is to actual diaries as the impulse to go on a diet is to actual slimness," writes Louis Menand in the Dec. 10 New Yorker. "Most of us do wish that we were slim diarists," he adds, and then he goes on to explore why we aren't. Menand's article meanders through various theories of diary-keeping and the work of various diarists both famous and infamous. Altogether a delightful article.
The Best American Short Stories 2007 (edited by Stephen King) is more uneven but equally rewarding. Many of the stories deal with families struggling to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: child murder, parental discord, schoolyard angst. My favorite among these is Joseph Epstein's "My Brother Eli," which explores the aura of the artist and its effect on those closest to him. The story is told from the perspective of a working stiff trying to understand his famous brother, a successful novelist too sensitive and special to feel at home in his working-class Chicago neighborhood. The narrator's no-nonsense observations reveal the ties that bind as well as the boundaries that divide the two brothers:
Eli was wearing a tux with an especially wide sateen collar, a shirt with lots of big ruffles and a red cummerbund and an enormous red bow tie, of the kind which, if, when you shook his hand, it flashed 'Kiss Me,' you wouldn't be in the least surprised. He looked like a Jewish trombone player in the old Xavier Cougat orchestra. His wispy, now completely white hair was combed over and patted down to cover his baldness. He got the family talent, wherever in the hell it came from originally, but I got our old man's thick hair, which maybe was the better deal.
The narrator's clear eye, compassion, and absence of rancor result in a story that reveals a believable world.
Another type of world is revealed in Roy Kesey's "Wait," in which a group of people gathered in an airport terminal in an unnamed country wait out an oppressive fog--a mundane situation to be sure, but Kesey's surreal take sparkles:
The fog scurls. Toilets clog and garbage cans overflow. Darkness drops, the generators growl and fail, and the airline personnel regret that no additional blankets are available. The subgroups gather into themselves. The girl from Ghana dreams the roar of a thousand fontomfrom drums while across the lounge the accountant fights through a nightmare involving misconstrued negative amortization schedules.
The wait goes on and the characters develop novel ways to pass the time, each activity more unexpected than the last--but like all waits, this too must pass, as much as the reader would like it to continue indefinitely.
And who is that reader? In the introduction to the volume, Stephen King proclaims the short story alive but not entirely well, suffering from marginalization to the bottom shelves of bookstore magazine racks dominated by photos of celebrities and sports stars. The result of this marginalization, he says, is that the audience for short stories consists of "other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines...not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn't real reading, the kind where you just can't wait to find out what happens next...It's more like copping-a-feel reading. There's something ucky about it."
In the Contributors' Notes, Richard Russo offers another reason for reading:
You'd think that the life of the mind, especially the liberal arts, would make us better, if not happier, people, but too often it doesn't. The study of literature had had what I believed to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but as I've gotten older I've come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for--to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion? How is it, then, that so many smart people use the study of literature to erect sturdy barriers between themselves and their lives, to become strangers to their truest desires, their best selves?
An excellent question well worth consideration by those of us devoted to the life of the mind. For those stuck behind those "sturdy barriers," this collection is an antidote, for it is suffused with that sense of compassion and charity that Russo considers the purpose of reading.