4 May 2013

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

A few things have been floating around in my head, bumping into each other, and I have to write them out to see if they make sense together. I doubt they will. They’ll just have to bump.

Last weekend at Tahoe, I was lying on the beach with splendor all around. Teresa asked me what I was reading. I showed her the New Yorker.

“What’s it about?”

“Copy editing.”

She looked at me like, I rest my case.  (Her case is that the New Yorker is the most boring publication alive.)

It was another John McPhee article about writing problems. A lot of what he says doesn’t make sense to me, but I like his subject, even if it’s only to disagree with almost everything he says. Like he goes on about writer’s block, which seems to me almost always a combination of laziness and self-importance. Get over yourself and write something short and probably stupid. I promise, no one will read it, and even if they do, they won’t notice, and if they do notice, they won’t care for more than a jilla-second. Or better yet, write a fact. Be a good reporter. I guess some people feel defeated by what they see as the importance of the occasion. But writing is wonderfully unimportant. That’s what I love about it. Besides, the world needs more writer’s block, not less. Just take one tiny glance at the internet or walk into a bookstore. Why can’t these people shut up and read?

Reading, the best thing in the world. A few days ago I wrote that I don’t especially want Enzo to turn out like me. Mostly true (and I’m so sorry about the feet), but I’m happy when I see that he loves reading. A few nights ago, he was sitting on the couch looking at a book about sharks for a long time. I said it was time to put on pajamas.

“But I’m not done reading.”

“Come on, I’ll carry you.” So I picked him up, and he held on with his legs and kept reading all the way down the hall, and I plopped him down on the bed, and he was still reading while I got out his pajamas.

He doesn’t actually read, by they way. In Waldorf they don’t start reading until they’re seven, and only a little bit then. (He’s six.) But he calls it reading, and it seems different from looking at pictures. I’m pretty sure he’s following a narrative—he remembers his books very well—and the pictures remind him of the story. Or in the case of the shark book, the pictures remind him of the facts.

In Waldorf they think that when kids are around five, six, seven, their ability to understand a story is so far beyond what they’re able to read that reading isn’t much fun for them. Around eight, their reading starts to catch up with their comprehension. So in Waldorf they start reading around eight, learn it very fast, and are almost immediately able to read for pleasure.

Almost everyone learns to read, but not everyone learns to love reading, and if you love reading, you almost can’t help writing well. As long as school or self-importance or science-fiction or fantasy or politics or some dreadful job (like lawyering or god forbid professoring) don’t ruin you.

I have a bunch of other notes here that seemed relevant at the time, including, “Holocaust—why I love it.”

The notes have to do with Anne Frank, Primo Levi and William Shirer and how sometimes writing is important and by some miracle the right person writes the right thing at the right time. And it’s a great pleasure, even though I am sorry about the holocaust, really, I am.

In the sentence above, at first I wrote, “By some miracle of good luck the right person writes the right thing at the right time.” But it’s not really good luck for them, is it? For Primo Levi and Anne Frank, their bad luck is our good luck, and there’s a bit of discomfort in that. But not much. I stand by the pleasure. Those books put art to shame. Or maybe they’re the best art.

Anne Frank would have been a great writer even if she’d been writing in present-day, peaceful, deep suburbia, because she was a genius, and her subject was people, not evil. She didn’t need the holocaust, and just think what she would have written if she’d lived. It’s a horrifying loss. Primo Levi probably needed the holocaust to become the writer he was. He said that Auschwitz was his university—and got picked on for it. He needed a subject, and he got it.

William Shirer is the lucky one—handed the hardest, most important subject and somehow able to pull it off. Bless him.