The Walk Back from the Mailbox


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John Updike 2

“And the other morning, a Sunday morning, around nine, walking back up my driveway in my churchgoing clothes, having retrieved the Sunday Globe from my mailbox, I experienced happiness so sharply I tried to factor it into its components. (1) The Christmas season was over — the presents, the parties, the ‘overshadowing’ — and that was a relief. (2) My wife and I had just made love, successfully all around, which at my age occasions some self-congratulation. (3) It was a perfect winter day, windless, with fresh snow heaped along the driveway by the plow and a cobalt-blue sky precisely fitted against the dormered roof-line of my house. I admired this blank blue sky…

Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it.

In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe that the world was created to be praised. But I inherited a skeptical temperament. My father believed in science and my mother in nature. She looked and still looks to the plants and the animals for orientation, and I have absorbed the belief that when in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like ‘savages’ — that our instincts and appetites are better guides, for a healthy life, than the advice of other human beings. People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions — churches, banks, madrigal groups — but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.”


John Updike, writing in the concluding paragraphs of his memoir Self-Consciousness.

More from Updike:

John Updike, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1962

Why History?


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David McCullough

“History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for… History is — or should be — the bedrock of patriotism. Not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism, but the real thing: love of country.

At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, this city, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief. Do we disregard that?

Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude.

I’m convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, and gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own time on earth and how valuable it is.

What history teaches it teaches mainly by example. It inspires courage and tolerance. It encourages a sense of humor. It is an aid to navigation in perilous times… Think how tough our predecessors were. Think what they had been through. There’s no one in this room who hasn’t an ancestor who went through some form of hell. Churchill in his great speech in the darkest hours of the Second World War, when he crossed the Atlantic, reminded us, ‘We haven’t journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy.’[...]

But, I think, what it really comes down to is that history is an extension of life. It both enlarges and intensifies the experience of being alive. It’s like poetry and art. Or music. And it’s ours, to enjoy. If we deny our children that enjoyment, that adventure in the larger part of the human experience, we’re cheating them out of a full life.

There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.’ The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest of all mysteries — time and human nature.

How lucky we are. How lucky we are to enjoy in our work and in our lives, the possibilities, the precision and reach, the glories of the English language. How lucky we are, how very lucky we are, to live in this great country, to be Americans — Americans all.”


David McCullough, speaking at the 1995 National Book Awards.

Although in the three weeks since my last post this site’s been been mentioned by Buzzfeed and my generous pals at TheDish, I’m in the process of winding down for the summer. I had planned to write a few words to explain this move, but the simple reason for it is that I’ve been short on time. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to writing on here more frequently, but it will probably be a matter of months, so keep your eyes out.

David McCullough

Johnny Cash on Work Ethic, Preachers, and Singing Gospel Music with Elvis


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Johnny Cash

Barney Hoskins: Do you really need to tour so much? Do you need to work so hard and drive yourself so hard?

Johnny Cash: For my soul I do. Yeah, for my soul. It’s a gift. My mother always told me that any talent is a gift of God, and I always believed that. If I quit, I would just live in front of the television and get fat and die pretty soon. So I don’t want to do that. You know I just hope and pray I can die with my boots on. I’ve been in hospital beds and I don’t want to end it up there…

I went through a period that I didn’t want to sing those old songs again. I finally decided that I was really cheating them and myself. And I started singing all the old ones with gusto and lust. Like I loved them. Those songs, “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Ring of Fire”. They’re part of me. They’re an extension of me when I get in front of that microphone. There’s a part of me going through that mic, you know, to that audience. They feel it and they know it if I feel it, you know. They’ll turn it right back to me, the appreciation. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what performing is all about, is sharing and communicating.

Barney Hoskins: Could you have ever been a preacher? Were you ever tempted to–?

Johnny Cash: No. I think in my world of religion, you’re called to preach or you don’t preach. Called by God to preach. I never been ordained by God to preach the gospel. I have a calling, it’s called to perform and sing. That’s it. I think gospel song is a ministry in a way. Gospel music is so ingrained into my bones, you know. I can’t do a concert without singing a gospel song. It’s what I was raised on.

It was the thing that inspired me as a child growing up on a cotton farm, where work was drudgery and it was so hard that when I was in the field I sang all the time. Usually gospel songs because they lifted me up above that black dirt.

johnny cash

Barney Hoskins: I was going to ask you how the pain is in your jaw these days.

Johnny Cash: It’s pretty severe.

Barney Hoskins: Really? All the time? Constant?

Johnny Cash: Almost all the time, yeah.

Barney Hoskins: How do you–

Johnny Cash: Except when I’m on stage.

Barney Hoskins: Really?

Johnny Cash: Yeah.

Barney Hoskins: That’s miraculous that it just leaves you. Power of music I guess.

Johnny Cash: Yeah, I pray for that and it works. It doesn’t alter or hinder my performance.

Barney Hoskins: It must be a struggle to have to take pain killers at the same time, to be able to regulate them–

Johnny Cash: I don’t take them. I can’t take them. It’s like an alcoholic: he can’t drink. I can’t take pain pills.

Johnny Cash

Barney Hoskins: You must be very brave to–

Johnny Cash: No. I’m not very brave because for five years I didn’t try to take the pain. I fought it. I had a total of 34 surgical procedures on my left jaw. Every doctor I’ve been to knows what to do next, too. To relieve me of pain, I don’t believe any of them. I’m handling it. It’s my pain. I’m not being brave either. I’m not brave at all after what I’ve been through, I just know how to handle it.

Barney Hoskins: When you look at yourself in the mirror do you feel like an American icon when you look at yourself in the mirror?

Johnny Cash: God, what a question. Shit. I see the pimples on my nose and I see the fat jaw from the pain where it’s swollen… Icon? No. I don’t see him. He’s not in my mirror. Thanks anyway.

Barney Hoskins: I was interested to know whether you ever talked about gospel music with Elvis?

Johnny Cash: Oh yeah. That’s all we talked about. Well that wasn’t all, we talked about girls too. Yeah, Elvis and I, a lot of shows we would sing together in the dressing room and invariably we’d go to black gospel. We knew the same songs. We grew up on the same songs.


Johnny Cash, speaking in an interview with Barney Hoskins on October 14th, 1996.

More American icons:

Johnny Cash

“Friends” by Ian Hamilton


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Cat in the Window

‘At one time we wanted nothing more
Than to wake up in each other’s arms.’
Old enemy,
You want to live forever
And I don’t
Was the last pact we made
On our last afternoon together.


“Friends” by Ian Hamilton.

I have to thank my friend John Etheridge for sending me along Hamilton’s way, and for writing poetry that’s certainly worth exploring.

The above photo: taken in my backyard in Houston, Texas.

More from Hamilton: BiographyEpitaph, In Dreams

Ian Hamilton

Hooman Majd Talks Human Nature in Style


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Hooman Majd

“I definitely think that I’m my own critic, for sure, and not society. Although it does affect me, how society views what I do. I won’t deny that; I think that anyone who says it doesn’t is lying.

I do think about my own insignificance, sure. I can be interviewed or have somebody write an article that mentions me or whatever. And for a moment you think, ‘Wow, I’ve done something good.’… But then at the end of the day, I know it doesn’t matter. I’m not that significant. Even if I were famous, even if I were better known — either as a writer or as a celebrity — I still wouldn’t be that significant at the end of the day.

But mortality, yeah, you can’t help but think about it from time to time. You certainly think about it in terms of your family. As you get older and you start losing either friends in some cases, to unnatural deaths or disease, or family to old age; it makes you understand you’re getting closer… And it’s a little depressing, sure. It’s depressing.

But you just try to be logical about it, and say, ‘Well, do the best you can while you’re alive. (laughs) And try to enjoy it. Do the things that you enjoy, do the things that you want to do.’…

I’m not so sanguine about the nature of human beings. I’m not sure we’re an animal that’s particularly good… I’m not an anthropologist, but you see things — after so many thousands of years of advancement in culture, in technology, in thought, in theory — and you see people acting the same way they acted ten thousand years ago, before civilization. And you think maybe humans aren’t meant to live in harmony. I hate to say that. I would like to think that we could progress, that our brains could get to a point where we understand that we have to save our planet and we have to figure out how to live together without killing each other…”

Hooman Majd


Hooman Majd, speaking at his home in Brooklyn in an interview with Paradigm Magazine.

A lighter add-on from another recent interview:

Interviewer: You’re definitely looked at as a very cool older guy that younger guys like myself would like to eventually grow up to emulate in terms of your looks and style — what tips can you give guys like me for aging gracefully and staying cool in the process?

Hooman: You’re very kind. That’s very flattering and I don’t want to sound like I accept all that praise, but if I were to accept that praise, I think I’d say be honest to yourself about what you’re comfortable with. There’s nothing worse than forcing yourself into anything — whether it’s an opinion or a political position or clothing — because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. Be comfortable in your own skin. Sometimes you’ll see a guy in sweatpants and a New York Jets sweatshirt and the way he carries himself makes that cool. If I did that, it would be totally uncool because that’s not what I’m comfortable in. That’s not saying all slobs can look cool even if they’re comfortable, but there’s something about the way you carry yourself and the honesty with which you present your image to the world, and clothes and style are just a part of that.

Read on:

  • Dworkin dissects what we mean when we talk about living ‘a life of value’
  • Chomsky delves into the question ‘Is there a universal human nature?’
  • Cornel West preaches: “There must be some standard for human life that gets beyond… fleeting cultures and changing nation states and contingent civilizations and empires.”

Hooman Majd

What’s the Point of Reading History if You’ll Just Forget It Later?


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Map of the World

“When I was young and foolish, I thought I could learn all of history and have it all available in my head, or at least a lot of European history, or at least a lot of English history. Now I know that almost all this stuff will fall right back out of my head again. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth doing. There is another kind of knowledge building up, a synoptic sense of what people have done and will do, what sorts of organizations have succeeded, what sorts have failed, and some of the common notions of why. It’s all terribly vague and unsatisfactory, and the more you read the more you realize how variable and subjective the notions are, but as it accumulates I find that I’m far less likely to be fooled by the demagogues and politicians of the moment. I’m no better at predicting the future than anyone else, but I recognize the rashness of betting on my predictions better than most. History has a way of wriggling out of what people expect.

And there is a sense one gets for the fullness, depth, complexity of any one place and its people. It’s like looking at pond water under a microscope: suddenly you become aware of the incredible richness and diversity referred to — but also concealed — by a name like “water” or “Poland.”… That, too, is worth knowing: and you gradually obtain the conviction that the parts of the world that have not yet been given thousand-page histories by an Oxford or Harvard don are every bit as diverse and complex. You may not have looked at them yet through the microscope; you don’t know what’s there; but you know that if you did, they would resolve into new worlds and new constellations of sub-worlds. That, I guess, is what you really gain by reading these fat narrative histories: a sense for just how large the human universe is.”


Dale Favier, writing about his experience reading through Norman Davies two-volume history of Poland, in his blog post “The Pond Water of History”.

By the way: I found this gem on TheDish, my favorite site on the internet. I encourage all of you to read and subscribe.

The Intoxicating Power of a Teacher Who Believes in You


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Donna Tartt

“It has always been hard for me to talk about Julian without romanticizing him. In many ways, I loved him the most of all; and it is with him that I am most tempted to embroider, to flatter, to basically reinvent. I think that is because Julian himself was constantly in the process of reinventing the people and events around him, conferring kindness, or wisdom, or bravery, or charm, on actions which contained nothing of the sort. It was one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be.

Now, of course, it would be easy for me to veer to the opposite extreme. I could say that the secret of Julian’s charm was that he latched on to young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality…

It is similar to another remark made to me once by Georges Laforgue, on an occasion when I had been extolling Julian to the skies. ‘Julian,’ he said curtly, ‘will never be a scholar of the very first rate, and that is because he is only capable of seeing things on a selective basis.’

When I disagreed — strenuously — and asked what was wrong with focusing one’s entire attention on only two things, if those two things were Art and Beauty, Laforgue replied: ‘There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty — unless she is wed to something more meaningful — is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.’

It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly — basically to falsify him — in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good.”

Donna Tartt


From Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel The Secret History.

For context: this reflection sets off History’s wistful denouement, as protagonist Richard Papen surveys the fragmentation of his college friends, all of whom had once coagulated around Julian, their charismatic classics professor at a New England liberal arts college.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes friendship as originating in that instant when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” So it has something to do with not being alone in the world, or not being so alone in the world, and the awareness that affinity is what ultimately spurs, in some sense, intimacy. This relational question applies to fiction as well, particularly in terms of whom within a story should be the ideal target of such a you too? epiphany. Nabokov’s advice for reading literature can be summarized in a single breath: In your progression through a novel, don’t try to identify with the story’s protagonist — try to identify with its author. Such challenging but sound counsel squares with the view — annexed from Martin Amis — that literature must be understood, not as communication, but as a means of communion. In other words, when you’re reading a book, you’re not just tracing a story arc or absorbing discreet facts about the world — you are communing in an immediate way with another person’s — the author’s — psyche.

Perhaps there is no more profound point in the course of reading a good book than when you snap out of full concentration on the text, fork the pages between your fingers, and look to the floor, thinking, “How’d [the author] know that about my life?” Sometimes this realization can alight on the ego, as you are reintroduced to a positive personal trait or pleasant memory that perhaps you’d forgotten. Though for me it more often comes in the form of an amused sense of incrimination, as I smirk and feel compelled to sigh something like, “I’ve been sized up. I’m busted.”

In the course of the two concluding pages from which the above excerpt is pulled, Donna Tartt coaxed this reaction from me a handful of times, most clearly in the initial evocation of teacher-spurred feelings of superiority (which brings a particular professor and mentor to mind) as well as the final thought in the final sentence, which I have learned can lead to very grave misjudgments about people you let into your life.

Read on:

  • I reviewed in one sentence every book I read last year
  • A short essay on why the novel is imperishable
  • Also from The Secret History, on the memory of adolescent friends

Donna Tartt

The Last Gentleman on the Titanic


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Benjamin Guggenheim

“‘If anything should happen to me, tell my wife in New York that I’ve done my best in doing my duty.’

This was the last message of Benjamin Guggenheim, of the famous banking family, dictated to a steward only a short while before the banker sank to his death with the Titanic. It was was not until several days later that the message was received by Mrs. Guggenheim.

It was delivered by James Etches, assistant steward in the first cabin of the Titanic, to whom Mr. Guggenheim communicated it. Etches appeared at the St. Regis Hotel and inquired for Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim. He said that he had a message from Benjamin Guggenheim, and that it had to be delivered in person.

Mrs. Guggenheim was in the care of Daniel Guggenheim, whose apartments are at the St. Regis. The steward was admitted, but was not permitted to see Mrs. Guggenheim, who is prostrated with grief. He insisted that he must see her personally, but finally consented to transmit the message through her brother-in-law.

‘We were together almost to the end,’ said the steward. ‘I was saved. He went down with the ship. But that isn’t what I want to tell Mrs. Guggenheim.’

The Titanic Launch

Then the steward produced a piece of paper. He had written the message on it, he said, to be certain that it would be correct. The message was as given.

‘That’s all he said’ added the steward, ‘there wasn’t time for more.’

Little by little Mr. Guggenheim got the account of his brother’s death from the steward. It was the first definite news that he had received of his brother.

‘Mr. Guggenheim was one of my charges,’ said the steward anew. ‘He had his secretary with him. His name was Giglio, I believe, an Armenian, about twenty-four years old. Both died like soldiers.

‘When the crash came I awakened them and told them to get dressed. A few minutes later I went into their rooms and helped them to get ready. I put a life preserver on Mr. Guggenheim. He said it hurt him in the back. There was plenty of time and I took it off, adjusted it, and then put it on him again. It was all right this time.

‘They wanted to get out on deck with only a few clothes on, but I pulled a heavy sweater over Mr. Guggenheim’s life belt, and then they both went out. They stayed together and I could see what they were doing. They were going from one lifeboat to another helping the women and children. Mr. Guggenheim would shout out, ‘Women first,’ and he was of great assistance to the officers.

Titanic Propellers

‘Things weren’t so bad at first, but when I saw Mr. Guggenheim about three quarters of an hour after the crash there was great excitement. What surprised me was that both Mr. Guggenheim and his secretary were dressed in their evening clothes. They had deliberately taken off their sweaters,’ and as nearly as I can remember they wore no life belts at all.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked.

‘We’ve dressed up in our best,’ replied Mr. Guggenheim, ‘and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.’ It was then he told me about the message to his wife and that is what I have come here for.

‘Well, shortly after the last few boats were lowered and I was ordered by the deck officer to man an oar, I waved good-bye to Mr. Guggenheim, and that was the last I saw of him and his Armenian secretary.'”


The full text of an article published on Sunday, April 21st, 1912 in the Chicago Record-Herald, later reprinted in Jay Henry Mowbray’s The Sinking of the Titanic.


The Light in My Father’s Study


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A Light in the Study

A light is on in my father’s study.
“Still up?” he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech. He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father’s study
now shines as late in mine.


“Working Late” (edited) by Louis Simpson.

The picture was taken on a rainy day last summer in my study in Houston, Texas.

Louis Simpson

Martin Amis: Why Are So Many Writers Drinkers?


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Martin Amis

Interviewer: Why have you been less interested in writing about drugs than you have about drink? Does it have to do with how you grew up? Your father hasn’t exactly avoided booze as a subject.

Martin Amis: Yes, he’s a serious drinker. Drink, like sex, tells us an extra thing about someone. It strikes me more and more that we don’t really know much about each other, even people we know well. We keep so much hidden. You put the 10% on display: the rest is all secret. And when people are drunk, you find out another 10%; and when you discover what someone is like intimately, you discover another 10%, or maybe more.

Interviewer: I don’t know if drugs give you another 10%. Sometimes I think drugs remove something.

Martin Amis: Or obscure the original 10%, yes. In my early novels, people smoke dope and stuff, but alcohol is something everyone has an attitude towards, especially in New York where it seems everyone has stopped drinking.

Interviewer: Smoking, too.

Martin Amis: You’re more efficient when you don’t drink. But also you keep that other 10%. Someone from New York said to me not long ago, ‘You produce an awful lot, are you a workaholic?’ I said, ‘No I’m an alcoholic.’

In fact I’m not an alcoholic, but drink is present every day of my life in those few glasses of wine at the end of the day. When people say that I often think it means a few bottles. Funnily enough, a mild hangover is often a good start in order to write. I think the reason writers do drink a lot, almost without exception — American novelists, if they’re not Jewish or alcoholics — is that writers have time to recover. You haven’t got to get up the next morning. And perhaps, more than most people, you do want an escape from yourself.


Excerpted from a 1976 interview with Martin Amis.

While its original text is not available on the web, this exchange was recently reenacted at the PEN World Voices Festival by Amis, John Freeman, and Anatol Yusef.

Martin Amis Christophers Hitchens

What Is a ‘State’?


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Max Weber

“But what is a ‘political’ association from the sociological point of view? What is a ‘state’? Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand… Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.

‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state — nobody says that — but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions — beginning with the sib — have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.”


Sociologist Max Weber, writing in his seminal 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation”.

This is the best definition of the state that I’ve read. It is also, in a nutshell, what we Americans have never understood about our guns — that although we may have the right to violently defend our selves and our property, we ultimately cede to the state the right to legitimately exercise force.

Read on:

  • Andrew Jackson elaborates on the importance of the rule of law
  • Martin Luther King outlines when and how you should break the law
  • Chief Justice Robert Jackson argues why the state must let people think freely

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