Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reviews of "To Show and To Tell" by Phillip Lopate, "The Made-Up Self" by Carl Klaus, and "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

As challenging as it often is, being a writer (not a Writer) is a rewarding calling. Professionally, much of a lawyer’s work consists of writing. This sometimes creates mountains of god-awful legal prose, but it can be done better—much better. Demand letters and briefs are especially fun challenges, and I enjoyed refining my skills as a legal writer. In addition, from my days as a Young Republican essayist (we’re talking junior high-- gimme a break!) writing about the value of the two-party system (good for second place among three contenders), I've felt compelled to say things on paper. After years of journals (C: “Why do you keep these? What are you going to do with them?” A: “Don’t know, except keep them”) and letters to congressional representatives and newspaper editors, I came upon blogging. 

I wish that I could say something profound and insightful about why I blog, but the plain truth is I sincerely believe that everyone should experience the value and pleasure of knowing my opinions about this or that. It’s just another form of narcissism, I fear, but to keep my head from getting too big, I occasionally look at the number of persons who read my posts and then rest my worry that the circle of those who know of my ranting hasn’t much expanded beyond those on whom I would have inflicted it anyway. 

So why did I just read two books on the essay and Virginia Woolf’s classic essay “A Room of One’s Own”? Well, with more time on my hands than in the past, with a new position that involves teaching how to write well, and with thoughts of future ventures, refining my writing seems the thing to do as a practical matter. Then, too, there is this pretension that maybe some blog post might prove worthy of the shadow of those who made the essay an intriguing and vital part of our literature. 

Phillip Lopate and Carl Klaus are two of the best-known scholars of the essay, and both practice the art that they teach, which makes reading their works a double-treat. Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, which I read first, had me with the title. Well, I love to tell people things: how else will they receive the benefit of my knowledge and wisdom? Further, just “showing” can hide the forest for the trees. But the book does more than puncture a hole in the current wisdom. Instead, Lopate reviews the art of the essay from the time of its founding Aeneas, Montaigne, to the best of those writing today, including himself and this very book. In writing about various issues that essayists have addressed from the time of Montaigne to the present, Lopate—in essay chapters—discusses the many variations and challenges that have been raised and addressed by the essay and “literary nonfiction” in general. 

Klaus’s book, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay addresses one of the ongoing challenges presented by the essay from Montaigne down to his own efforts. Quoting Virginia Woolf’s aphorism: “Never to be yourself, and yet always”, Klaus, starting from the fountainhead (Montaigne, of course), explores the different ways that the self is presented and sometimes hidden by the essayist. By concentrating on the personal essay, one that drags you in because it’s written in the first-person and because you have a sense of the someone who’s written this—of someone  having lived this—you have the challenges of wondering what has been left in and what left out. It’s an opportunity to look into the life and experiences and observations of another, and when well written, it proves delightful, or at least intriguing. 

In fact, while I greatly appreciated Klaus’s knowledgeable and insightful consideration of Montaigne, Lamb, Woolf, E.B. White, and Orwell, among others, it’s his own personal reflections in the final chapter that provided me with the most pleasure and insight. Klaus reports that in the mid-1990s he decided to write an entry each day for the weather, about 500 words. And a very important fact: he lives in Iowa City, where he taught at the University since the 1960s. * Now, such an idea might fall flat here in Rajasthan (typical entries: hot and dry, very hot and dry, extremely hot and dry), but in Iowa, he has subject-matter that changes, sometimes violently. He set out to describe “what it looked like and felt like each day on my hillside lot in Iowa City—a place where I'd spent twenty-five years witnessing the flow (and sometimes the clash) of arctic- and gulf-born weather systems.” This seemingly mundane task (discouraged by some colleagues)  becomes a larger meditation on change and life, as concerns for the health of his wife and his pets, among other things, impinge upon a simple weather report. He finds himself, like Iowa weather, changing at times unexpectedly and uncertainly. So with the self and its concerns. 

Finally, between these two works, I read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, and I greatly enjoyed my time with it. In addressing women and fiction as a given theme, Wolf meanders through the centuries to address the topic, weaving her way through history as if providing a leisurely pointed tour of the past, and in particular, the burdens and challenges endured by women who wanted to write . Careful phrasing, an authoritative but friendly voice, and a careful choice of topics made this a very enjoyable read. A tract of feminism, and a fine one, yes; but its pleasure proves much greater than that of a political tract or polemic. It’s a tour, and one to savor, as if in the company of a gifted docent.

* I don’t believe that I’ve ever met Mr. Klaus. I know that I didn’t take a class from him (if only I knew), but he gives a shout out to Jackie Blank, our friend and realtor at the beginning of the book, so that provided some extra fun in reading this.   

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