- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

“You need the art in order to love the life.”

 

Happy birthday, Nicholson Baker! 63, today! Here are quotes from the writer:

 

“I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read.”

 

“Poetry is prose in slow motion.”

 

“Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.”

 

“Printed books usually outlive bookstores and the publishers who brought them out. They sit around, demanding nothing, for decades. That’s one of their nicest qualities—their brute persistence.”

 

“There’s an appetite for strings of words that cling together, and that’s a constant.”

 

“Why are things beautiful? I don´t know. That´s a good question. Isn’t it pleasing when you ask a question of a person, a teacher, or a speaker, and he or she says, ‘That´s a good question?’ Don’t you feel good when that happens?”

 

“The neurons that do expire are the ones that made imitation possible. When you are capable of skillful imitation, the sweep of choices before you is too large; but when your brain loses its spare capacity, and along with it some agility, some joy in winging it, and the ambition to do things that don’t suit it, then you finally have to settle down to do well the few things that your brain really can do well—the rest no longer seems pressing and distracting, because it is now permanently out of reach. The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by blue glows of algebra and abstraction.”

 

“The thing about life is that life is an infinite subject matter. At any one moment you can say only what’s before your mind just then. You have some control over what comes before your mind—by reading, or by looking through your old notes, or by going to movies, or by talking to people, and you can choose what room of the house or what corner of the yard to sit in, and you can choose to write before or after you’ve masturbated—this is crucial—and you can choose to tell the truth or not to. And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or too boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, gray non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.”

 

“At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history every published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but not recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art.”

 

“I don’t think that loneliness is necessarily a bad or unconstructive condition…I like the heroes or heroines of books I read to be living alone, and feeling lonely, because reading is itself a state of artificially enhanced loneliness. Loneliness makes you consider other people’s lives, makes you more polite to those you deal with in passing, dampens irony and cynicism…But there are times when the wish for others’ voices, for friendliness returned, reaches unpleasant levels, and becomes a kind of immobilizing pain.”

 

“The damage that you have inflicted heals over, and the scarred places left behind have unusual surface areas, roughnesses enough to become the nodes around which wisdom weaves its fibrils.”

 

“But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now. Indeed, for me, as a beginning novelist, all other living writers form a control group for whom the world is a placebo. The dead can be helpful, needless to say, but we can only guess sloppily about how they would react to this emergent particle of time, which is all the time we have. And when we do guess, we are unfair to them. Even when, as with Barthelme, the dead have died unexpectedly and relatively young, we give them their moment of solemnity and then quickly begin patronizing them biographically, talking about how they ‘delighted in’ x or ‘poked fun at’ y—phrases that by their very singsong cuteness betray how alien and childlike the shades now are to us. Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage makeup, and we almost never flip their books across the room out of impatience with something they’ve said. We can’t really understand them anymore. Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seeing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly.

Yet in other ways the dead gain by death. The level of autobiographical fidelity in their work is somehow less important, or, rather, extreme fidelity does not seem to harm, as it does with the living, our appreciation for the work. The living are ‘just’ writing about their own lives; the dead are writing about their irretrievable lives, wow wow wow. Egotism, monomania, the delusional traits of Blake or Smart or that guy who painted the electrically schizophrenic cats are all engaging qualities in the dead.”

 

“But spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end. It’s a mistake of emphasis.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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