Tuesday 9th August 2011
The Art of Lingering
I drop into a deli on Madison for water and salad for later. At the Centre I stop off on the second floor Reading Room for a quick peek at today’s New York Times. Big mistake!! Every literary journal and quarterly in North America is laid out on the mahogany table and display shelves. My greedy beady eyes scan them all - the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review, the New England Review, The Southern Review, the latest New Yorker, and my first ever sighting of a hard copy of McSweeney’s. The London Review of Books and Granta too. And now, resting among the lot, is The Stinging Fly.
I take the NY Times and McSweeney’s to a table around the corner. On the table, by chance, sits a beautiful hardback book, entitled Writers. On the cover, a photograph of a young Saul Bellow. The book is a collection of photos of writers taken by Nancy Crampton. I read the intro by poet Mark Strand and turn the pages and am hooked.
Each writer’s photo is paired with a short paragraph on the writing life. I check my watch, it’s almost 11. I turn the pages: Updike, William Maxwell, Sam Shepherd, Heaney. The younger ones are here too—Franzen, Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace—but it’s to the old and the dead I am drawn. I lose myself in the pages and go deeper into their faces and minds, and my own mind starts to swirl and I feel that delicious thrill one gets reading the interior thoughts and work habits of other writers. On the table beside me, untouched, McSweeney’s waits, and all around me shelves groan with books and journals that I covet. What great luck, I think, to have fallen on this book, left here randomly. I turn the pages slowly. There’s John Cheever sitting at the bottom of stone steps, looking pensive—no, desolate—while his dog looks down from a few steps above. I devour his words and my heart hops with the rightness of each one.
I glance at my watch, feel the compulsion to keep turning. One more page, I say, and I turn and there’s Philip Roth, and one more and it’s Alice Munro and the greedy eyes are triumphant and... one last turn... and it’s our own Edna, speaking directly to a heart and mind already in orbit... ‘Writing is an obsession ... that derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate…’ and I almost bow down to this most feeling of Irishwomen on the page before me.