Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff's books include The Fly Swatter, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and In the Country of Country, which was named one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature by Conde Nast Traveller. His first book, The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg, was a national bestseller and appeared on many best book lists. His new book is The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball. He is also the editor of the Library of America’s Baseball: A Literary Anthology.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The more I read, the more I realize how much I will never read—a forlorn truth that so oppressed my grandfather he went ahead and calculated how many books he would complete in his lifetime. Discovering that the number was a mere five thousand, he plunged even deeper into despond. What revived him is what buoys me, the promise of all that was waiting out there for him. On that glistening shelf of my future I include books of my past. I seem to spend a lot of time returning to books I’ve already read; every time I begin again the experience deepens. Recent books in that respect are Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It which is among the most beautiful and haunting stories about family I have ever read; Mary Chesnut’s conflicted diary of her life during the war-time Confederacy (edited by C. Vann Woodward), perhaps the most affecting book written during the Civil War; Freeman’s Dyson’s memoir Disturbing The Universe which is such a vividly intelligent evocation of the relationship between science and humanity written in a warm, graceful style that will appeal to people who are afraid of physics; James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, a true American classic about middle-aged men searching for self and the American sublime that is far better than the well-known film; and the story “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” from Joseph Mitchell’s collection Up In The Old Hotel. For many non-fiction writers, Mitchell remains The Master, and this ghostly and heartbreaking thirty-three page account of a lost community on Staten Island, for which in preparation he made 300 single-spaced pages of notes, may be his masterpiece.

What impels a person read a new book? With me, because there are always so many more new books than time to read them, sometimes a book just has to be recommended enough times that it finally becomes irresistible. Such a book for me was James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime which I recently read with enormous admiration for author’s ability to describe a sexual passion between two people of otherwise limited compatibility. Moment-to-moment you know exactly who they are and what they feel, making this a book of rare insight. Now I want to read more Salter. Another book that I have been urged to read again and again and finally just did was Night Studio, Musa Mayer’s memoir of her father the painter Philip Guston. It’s a good book about a great artist and what his need to make art cost his family, but ultimately the best thing about it for me was that it confirmed my belief that Approaching The Magic Hour, Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s memoir of her life with her husband, the Mississippi painter and ceramicist Walter Anderson, is something very special. Here is that rare commodity: a true story that feels unreservedly intimate. Agnes Anderson tells you exactly what it’s like to spend time with a fully committed artistic personality. Approaching The Magic Hour is a short book burning with art and sex and madness, and yet it’s somehow so balanced in its portrait of a most unbalanced protagonist that it slowly comes to you what an accomplished artist the writer is. At times, that book is almost unbearable. To calm down, if you are like me you’ll try a Henry James short story you haven’t read before--I just read “The Author Of Beltraffio”—or a comforting old baseball favorite like Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times which is the story of the early days of baseball told by the men who played it. I just read the Sam Crawford chapter again. It makes me want to eat apples stolen from a farmer’s orchard and live in Nebraska.
A Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri, and Berlin Prize Fellow, Nicholas Dawidoff is currently the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University.

--Marshal Zeringue