The writer’s task

A friend messaged me the other day about an idea he had for a book to write. He wanted my opinion. He thought maybe a book about presidents and their private interactions and personal acts of humanity, gleaned from things like private correspondences with unknown citizens, phone calls, secret visits, etc, etc. The kind of thing that a president had wanted to keep private.

It’s a great idea. And my friend is quite capable of writing that book if he so chooses. Biographers, I thought, spend years searching for just such private correspondences and actions in their attempt to understand the inner life of their subject.

Of course I immediately thought about the writer’s task in writing a book such as this. It’s a book about character, as all good (in the classical conception) novels, good biographies, or books about the secret life of a U.S. president, are. It’s a book about the quality of a soul. And the process of deep reading, and especially writing, about the inner life and character of another human being, makes us examine our own souls. Inside you’re asking yourself questions about your own motives and intentions. My friend had asked for a suggestion about who his subject should be.

As for suggestions, I can’t think of one right now, but I would consider…a President you didn’t necessarily agree with politically. It’s often more interesting, in my view, to discover we share common views and a very common humanity with people or Presidents who we’ve reflexively disagreed with because of our upbringing, inherited politics, and culture….Or what we’ve been told by others and accepted, rather than from what we’ve felt and learned with authentic attention and care. For example, let’s say you want to write a book like that, then I suggest maybe you begin by reading former President Obama’s new memoir coming out in November. Why? Not because you’ll agree with him, obviously not, but because your intention isn’t about agreement or disagreement but about whether you’re able to find sympathy with the humanity of people you disagree with. In some sense, it tests our ability to be honest with ourselves….and that’s much harder than we’d all like to believe.

I feel the writer’s first obligation is to truth. This is hard. Most of us are so conditioned by our environment and biases, that we’re simply unable (sometimes unwilling) to try and understand the world from the eyes of another soul. So he (my friend) should begin, I felt, by testing his own ability to be honest and objective about someone he knows he’ll disagree with. Can the writer absorb himself in the lives of others, with the intent to understand someone we often (or always) disagree with?…with what they did or the conclusions they reached?…or the mission they dedicated their life too?…and yet still find some genuine sympathy or agreement?—because it’s likely we will, and often it’s more so than we’d like others or ourselves to know.

And so to be a good writer—or a good observer of the world—and to prepare his mind for the quality of thinking and writing needed for this book about character, I felt my friend should begin by testing his own character. It’s hard work, but the results are felt by the reader on every page.

Fitzgerald’s lament

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself, or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life. By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read — the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

The allure of beauty

“What quality is it that contains at once this simplicity and this majesty, this softness and this strength? . . . It is what all of Us — the terribly intelligent, the unhappy, the artistic, the divided, the overwhelmed — most intimately worship, and most passionately, most vainly love.”

— Lytton Strachey

Colorized 1931 photograph of Albert Einstein

“Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art. They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity that I cannot derive from other sources.”— Albert Einstein — Quoted by Moszkowski in Conversations with Einstein, 184

Albert Einstein at the premiere of the film City Lights, February 2, 1931, in Los Angeles, CA

I was fascinated by my discovery of the above picture on the internet recently. The picture looks like it might have been taken yesterday, and yet it’s actually a colorized 1931 black and white photo of Albert Einstein being escorted by Charlie Chaplin at the premiere of Chaplin’s new film, City Lights.

Most of us know Einstein as a towering scientific genius, but he was also a devoted patron of the arts. A man of immerse scientific and mathematical knowledge, he felt that the human imagination and a wonder at the mysteries of life were two of the greatest motivational forces of the human spirit.

As Einstein knew, science, at best, can tell us the what about the world, but it’s only in the Arts and Humanities (which includes religion) that we can discover the why or meaning of our lives. As Einstein told a friend, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” 

What is the Point of a Bookish Life?

From Joseph Epstein’s new essay, The Bookish Life: How to Read and Why:

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.