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The Re-Reading Project

I went into a Barnes & Noble yesterday for the first time in a while searching for a new copy of “The Great Gatsby,” which I re-read every summer. My copy—an old Penguin—has disintegrated into brittle brown dust. Of course, I have Gatsby on my Kindle, but as I have explained already several times in this blog, I started to miss the sensory experience of holding a paper book and flipping its pages. And, of course, while I was in the store, I looked around. The smell of the books was delicious; it’s a candy store. And, I noticed, that many novels are now a different, longer shape. I liked the look and feel of that. But I left without buying anything. I’m going to be traveling in a week and the Kindle will have to do.

As for my report on the re-reading project I began after my recent move, it is coming along well. It’s instructive to return to books long stored on the shelf that seemed brilliant at the time, keepers, never to be abandoned. Some are and some aren’t. The Maxwells have stood the test well though I’ll only keep “They Came Like Swallows.” Every sentence in that book is a gem. But Paul Bowles’ “Up Above the World” is dated and the sentences are overwritten. I wonder, of course, how my work will be judged in one hundred years, if it is at all. But I know it’s best not to think about posterity when one is writing. I learn as I go and try to get better with every effort. It’s the effort that is important, and the practice. Some writing hits the zone, some doesn’t.

I think it was Stanley Kunitz who said that as he evolved as a writer, he chose simplicity and rigor over excess in the language he used in his poetry. I find myself doing the same. I remember the first writer’s group I belonged to: three poets and three prose writers. My goal was to impress everyone with my vocabulary and erudition. I didn’t succeed and I didn’t publish anything until I stopped trying to impress everyone with my vocabulary and erudition. My vocabulary has grown since then, I hope, but I am not trying to use it to wow anyone. Words are tools for precision and insight, or for precision of insight. And that’s my criteria for the books I am re-reading: What do they have to say? Are they saying it well?

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