Who, if I sung out, would hear?

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

The rock looked inviting.

Rocks, as I am sure you know, do not often look inviting. But this one did. Its cold, rough, mossy surface jutted out over the Charles River. It was bathed in sunlight.

I had not been exploring Hemlock Gorge very long, but I wanted to sit. And I wanted to read in the sunlight. What did it matter that I was wearing a business suit and a light trench coat, and had a laptop bag with two books slung across my shoulders? The river spirits wouldn’t care how I was dressed.

The soles of my shoes slipped and I was afraid of falling in. But, settling myself on the rock, I looked out at the river. I felt like child again, in a world of unlimited possibilities.

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Pen to Paper

by Matthew Koslowski on April 14, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks: Why Agatha Christie’s method was utterly deranged by Christine Kenneally, Slate, April 12, 2010.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Letters on Life: New Prose Translations by Rainer Maria Rilke (Ulrich Baer, ed. and trans.)
 

On Monday, I was reading Slate. What inspired me to read it that day, I am not sure: it has not been one of the sources that I regularly turn to for my news.

Perhaps because I want to be a writer myself, I have always found it fascinating to listen to stories about how artists, musicians, and authors create their work. Without any real study, the descriptions of the creative process stick with me.

For example, years ago I listened to part of an interview with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. (Perhaps the entire band was being interviewed, my memory is vague.) I remember nothing about that interview, save this one thing: R.E.M. records the music without Michael Stipe present and then they give him the rough cut on a tape. He walks around listening to the tape again and again until he is able to put words to the music.

But I am glad that I decided to read Slate this week. Otherwise I would have missed a great article about the writing process that Agatha Christie employed. If you can call how Agatha Christie wrote a “process.”

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Deluged

by Matthew Koslowski on March 17, 2010
in Anecdotes

The covers were all rolled in on themselves. I knew all the pages would be stuck together. The first book I picked up was On Love and Barley: The Haiku of Basho. And it dripped like a wet sponge.

Despite the grief at having lost hundreds of dollars worth of books, I found comfort in picking up the works of Basho. Although he could have had a comfortable life as a military officer or a small official, Basho renounced that to become a poet, to teach poetry, and to travel. His disciples built him a modest hut and planted him a banana tree. In fact, they built him several huts throughout his life because each was destroyed.

All Basho owned was some clothes, his hut when he had one, his banana tree, and his art.

I have long admired Basho’s poetry and the sparseness of his life. Back in college I remember, perhaps after spending time reading Basho, saying that a trunk full of books, a trunk full of clothes, a pen and paper, and a sleeping bag was all that I should ever need.

Quite against my choosing, my life will be more spare. More spare materially, but perhaps more full.

Perhaps because I picked up Basho first and I remembered my old ideal of living a life around my art instead of around material goods, I was not too grieved by the loss of my books. There were some losses I will grieve.

Many of the papers I wrote in college and course readers and other miscellany were soaked through.

The next book I picked up was priceless. As a Christmas gift, I received a dual language edition of Rilke’s poetry, in the original German with Russian translations. A hardcover book, I had had some hope that I could save it and set it in front of a space heater. When I looked in after it the next day, it looked swollen and beyond saving.

Another priceless book, a dual language edition of Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics in Italian with English translations by Robert M. Durling, sat in the water. I have two copies of that book, though only the ruined one is accounted for right now and the other may share the other’s fate. What I do know is that I received the one that was ruined as a gift from my favorite college literature professor, Dr. James Biehl.

Then I picked up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. While sad to lose that book, I chuckled. How appropriate a book to lose. As I picked up books and papers, tried to guide water to the sump pump, I felt there was something Sisyphean in the effort. And beyond the effort of clean up, I thought of other Sisyphean tasks.

Will I work to earn money to buy these books again only to worry that they may get ruined again? Or will I use this opportunity to create my life more consciously, to consume less but enjoy more?

Perhaps even Sisyphus can smile.

Thoughts on Libraries

by Matthew Koslowski on February 17, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

“Do School Libraries Need Books?” from Room for Debate, The New York Times, February 10, 2010
“The Library, Through Students’ Eyes” from Room for Debate, The New York Times, February 14, 2010
“A library without books” by David Abel, The Boston Globe, September 4, 2009
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, by Nicholas Carr, The Atlantic, July/August 2008
 

I remember reading in The Boston Globe last September that a private school in Massachusetts had given up its collection of books. I was aghast.

That Cushing Academy gave away collection of books, turning its library into a digital media center, continues to bother me.

Since reading that article, I have thought a lot about the role of libraries in our society. I have library cards for three different library systems here in Massachusetts. I joined the Boston Athenaeum, a membership library, last December after writing about them in a December 11th’s Weekly Review.

Libraries are important places. Digital technology cannot yet replace — and I hope never will — brick-and-mortar libraries.

I love going to physical libraries. I love browsing the stacks.

One afternoon while wandering through the shelves, I came across The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke a collection of fragments from Rilke’s letters, collected into thematic chapters by Ulrich Baer. Without the serendipity of walking through the stacks, I would never have found the book because I would never have thought to look for it.

I walked into the Boston Athenaeum on Saturday to visit again the art exhibit I reviewed last week, An Artist + A Poet. Walking around the new acquisitions displays on the first floor, I found Young Rilke and His Times by George C. Schoolfield. Again, I never would have thought to look for this book but I’m glad to have borrowed it.

That’s one weakness I find in my own Internet research. There is so much information out there, that unless I know what I am looking for, I have trouble finding anything at all. Reading from the Internet encourages us to read shallowly and seek a particular piece of information and continue on.

We have become sifters.

But when we enter a library, we are looking for knowledge in a broader sense than we are when we begin an Internet search. When we begin an Internet search, we are looking for answers to specific questions. When we enter a library, we are looking for answers, yes, but I think we are open to letting those answers inspire additional questions in ways we aren’t on the Internet.

All the same, I am no luddite. I know that the Internet is changing the way that we think and organize information. Perhaps libraries will become obsolete.

But I hope that we continue recognize the value of books and libraries. There are no pop-up advertisements in books, nor banner ads in libraries. Just as online, there are other things — more books, though, rather than more sites — vying for our attention in a library. Yet, I find myself able to become immersed in a book in a way that I have never seen translated online.

I hope that we keep these quiet bowers.

What are your thoughts? Share them with us.

Do libraries hold any special memories for you? Have you moved completely online? Do libraries have a future, or only a past?

Patrons & Saints

by Matthew Koslowski on December 24, 2009
in Essays

To one of my saints, my dear friend, Emily Baum, with the deepest appreciation.

In This Essay

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (C.D.N. Costa, trans.)
Late Bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell, The Annals of Culture, The New Yorker
On Dying Young by Matthew Koslowski, Literature&Literacy
William Stafford, Poet, Wikipedia
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose by Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans.)
The Second Four Books of Poems by W.S. Merwin
 

“Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say. “Just show me a writer — a poet, preferably — who did not a pickup a pen before he was 27 or 30, who amounted to anything, who history remembers.”

These conversations are common.

I expect the normal, well-intentioned platitudes. Often I begin to despair because I have not dedicated myself to my writing. I begin to think that my time is up. “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” Seneca whispers. “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.” And I begin to think about how I have not invested my time well.

Rilke writes, “…if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all.” Haven’t I been living without writing? I have not worked on my novel in weeks. Or have I been existing and drifting? Do I really feel that I could live without writing?

“William Stafford,” she says.

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