A year ends -- with books still immortal and books still to be born

December 29, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Here we are again, confronted by the calendar's arbitrary and impossible insistence that we look back and forward at the same moment. I pray your private rituals serve you and yours well. Meanwhile, for public consumption, as a reader and as an editor, I have never been much impressed by the calendar-driven rituals that newspapers and magazines so often do at year's end and other annual landmark points.

So on these pages we have avoided the usual clambakes: Christmas gift lists, summer reading inventories, the year's best this and worst that and suchlike.

The Sun could throw together a lot of good, even wise, minds from inside this newspaper and from among its constituents. We could thus jury up such lists. But, having bathed in the products of such processes in other respectable, even estimable, papers and magazines, I fear the end-product would be appallingly predictable and minimally helpful to you.

In contrast, the questions published on these pages today, and the few others like them that we have had this year and last, will, I hope, at least jolt some readers into thinking a bit, into stretching their minds, pumping up their intellectual abdominals - or gluteuses.

Why ask these silly questions? Out of curiosity, in part, to see how the respondents think. But no, that is not enough. Perhaps to show how they think, as an experience of nourishment.

Reading is good

For the last two years, more intensely than at any time in my life, I have been reading books, reading about books and listening to people talk about books. It has been an enormous source of pleasure. I have learned a good deal, I suppose. Certainly, I have been left with a lot of impressions, some random and casual, and some, I hope, substantial.

Even for one whose memory is as imperfect as mine (I do envy people who remember virtually everything) reading 60 or 70 books a year with acute attentiveness, skipping not a page, skimming not a paragraph, and surveying several hundred others, is bound to force a certain amount of information, if not wisdom, into the numbest of skulls. All that has reconfirmed in me one of the most primitive of prejudices: Reading is a good thing, and by extension, the more people read the better they get - at the things they read about and, if they read serious books, better indeed at life.

That is a perilous conceit, which I will leave to be ridiculed by those with the good sense to choose to. Many will. Most fools can read, of course. Many readers, and no small number of well-read writers, remain fools.

But reading does, by and large, offer constructive nourishment to minds under the control of good spirits. Most or all of the women and men whose answers to my two quirky questions are published here today are people of good spirits.

Do read them all. What does this exercise say? At the very least, it declares that each of the people whose answers are here has had her or his sense of expectation enriched by the work of a writer. How many people are there in your life to whom you can go in undoubting certainty that what they have to say on a given subject will be really exciting, will be as pleasurable, let's say, as a trip to the zoo, a long walk in the woods - or reading a good book?

My answer to that last question is that I am blessed by knowing quite a good number of such people. If you don't, I much encourage you to expand your chums list. But however richly they serve your mind, few conversations can bring as much to you as two or three hundred pages of words on paper.

Now, to some of the responses.

If a principal responsibility of editors in publishing houses is to seek out the immortal souls of great dead artists lurking in the minds of the living, then the suggestions here should serve as a mission statement for the brightest stars in bookdom.

Paul West's assignment to all of literature's Uncle Willie to take on the Windsors may be beyond the reach of even the most brilliant of resurrectionists; no remotely convincing heir to Shakespeare has yet to appear on this planet. Almost equally inimitable, Jonathan Swift does so well with human truths in "Gulliver's Travels," as cited by Willis Regier, that there is no need to set him loose on contemporary targets.

Clash of swords

For nerve, I was particularly struck by Marvin Hamlisch's teaming of Russell Baker and William Safire. Whatever issue might bless that union, there's joy in imagining the noise of the two sharpest-edged swords of the New York Times' legions clashing for a few hundred pages.

But for outright courage as well as imagination, Peter Yuill's plea for new attention to Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" deserves cheers - and endorsement.

Going to notes I scribbled before reading the other responses, I find myself of like mind with Dion Thompson. I cannot imagine that Salman Rushdie today could explore American life lushly enough to build the book Thompson assigns without putting himself in dreadful mortal peril, thanks to the unrelenting death-sentence of primitive zealots. But the depth and richness and wisdom of Rushdie's revealing of British and Indian hearts and souls in "The Moor's Last Sigh" - my own most enjoyed single book of 1996 - makes an overpowering case for Thompson's assignment. I will await, with joyful expectation, whatever Rushdie does come up with.

The second question can be taken as an invitation to delight or to express moral purpose. Many of the responses spoke to both. Of the dozen books that leap to my mind and heart, I'll settle this year for urging a new look at e.e. cummings' "The Enormous Room," as fresh and courageous and true today as it was, I believe, in 1922.

Go well.

Come again next year.

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