When writers read
It was a warm summer afternoon in Boston, and we wondered where our writers were. Or rather what they were doing, since they usually leave a forwarding address. Was anyone, by chance, READING A BOOK, as everyone is popularly supposed to do at this time of year? At least one voice admitted ''no'' when we rang up a dozen contributors to The Home Forum. Others said they'd call back with a word or two on a current favorite. So, instead of all those ten-best ''recommended'' book lists of the season, here is a highly individual sampling of what ten friends like and why. m
''Nothing might seem further from light reading than Plato,'' says Joan Baum, author of ''Doing 'The Scotton' '' on June 2.
''But here I am, unable to put down the early Dialoguesm, delighted with their cleverness and charm. How unfortunate that Plato is presented in college as Required Reading, usually as selections from the more difficult Republic or Symposiumm. But here in the earlier works, the Lysism, for example, which is a short piece on friendship, the Dialoguesm really come to life - conversations full of sparkling wit and irony.
''Epistemology? No doubt - but also wonderful, readable, informal narratives in dramatic form that have fun with language. Here is Socrates on his way to the Lyceum, happening upon a new building, the Palaestra, a school for sports. But, as one of the minor characters says, 'The real entertainment there is conversation.' It's good to wrestle; that was a Greek ideal. It's better still to wrestle with mind and language; that was a Socratic ideal. And does it ever show in the Lysism, where Plato wins over both the innocent and the cynical to love of virtue. Like young Lysis himself, I was hooked.''
''A friendly, watery book, A Conscious Stillnessmflows with the contemplative current of good summer reading,'' says Paul O. Williams, whose most recent contribution to The Home Forum was a poem, ''Regina to Banff,'' on July 12.
''The late naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale and his counterpart Ann Zwinger collaborated on this last of Teale's many projects as a literary naturalist. The text combines roughly equal writing by both, while the final work of compiling and editing was done by Zwinger, who added a charming reminiscence of Teale as a preface.
''In method and tone this volume resembles Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Riversm without his literary digressions. The authors combine history and observation in tracing the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers of eastern Massachusetts. These streams, which join to form the Concord, are among the earliest used, and misused, in America. The authors weave this human history in with the ancient geological record and the present natural life of the rivers in graceful and insightful essays, which combine two of the finest styles among literary naturalists.''
''I've been rereading Kafka's Metamorphosism, that masterly novella wherein a man changes overnight into an insect,'' reports Norma Farber, whose poem ''Wood, water and oarsmen'' appeared in The Home Forum July 11.
''Perhaps because I make poems, forms dedicated to economy of expression and metaphorical significance, I prefer reading short, imaginative works of prose fiction rather than substantial novels. Quasi-allegorical Metamorphosism is a special favorite.
''As a writer I find myself reacting, in this case, with aggressive professional interest. The themeprovokes mem - to the point of inciting a written reply. For I demur at accepting an essential derogation of the insect creature. Granted, it serves Kafka's literary purpose. But I need to restore something - something more than compassion for the 'lesser' form. Respect, perhaps; even praise.
''What if I should reverse the metaphor? Compose a story whose social insect - let's say a worker ant - wakes up to find itself a girl?
''Thanks, Kafka! You challenge me with your unique vision.
''Let me respond in kind.''
From David Holmstrom, whose ''Lydia agrees'' appeared July 19:
''First loaned to me by a friend from Montana, This House of Skym, by Ivan Doig, made me stop in my reading tracks. Doig has written a bittersweet, haunting memoir of his boyhood in the Montana wilderness that is an anthem of love and strength. Doig remembers his restless, sheepherding father, and his grandmother, Bessie Ringer, with the absolute certainty that they did the best they could.
''All the universals of life - plus the dimension of a master storyteller - are here like a Montana peak seen at sunrise.''
''Greatness in an artist is difficult to discuss, let alone define,'' reflects Theodore Wolff, whose ''Many masks of modern art'' pieces appear here on Thursdays.
''Most writers who have attempted either or both have focused upon the importance of tradition, style, expression, or commitment. Very few have attempted to portray the great artist as a real human being wrestling with his limitations, glorying in his strengths, and celebrating his genius in the only way he knows - by creating great works of art. Kenneth Clark, in his modest-sized but deeply moving An Introduction to Rembrandtm, has attempted and succeeded in doing just that.
''In Clark's hands, Rembrandt emerges as a fully rounded human being of great genius, imagination, concern for his fellow man, and spiritual depth. He also comes across as a highly innovative painter and etcher, a draftsman of extraordinary originality, and an artist whose early ambitions for fame and fortune gradually gave way to a profound sense of responsibility for the moral and spiritual conditions of mankind.
''Though I first read this book several years ago, I find myself continually referring back to it.''
From Steven Ratiner, whose views on Archibald MacLeish appeared July 18 in our ''Of poets'' series:
'' 'It was an extraordinary night.' So begins the novel Joy of Man's Desiringm , and author Jean Giono lets us take part in the events that transform the lives of an old couple, their neighbors, and their Provencal countryside. It is for just that reason Giono's books are themselves so extraordinary. They do not simply lead you along a track of plot and characterization. You enter the book the way an immigrant enters a new world. Everything seems fresh, vibrant - yet surprisingly familiar.
''The world Giono creates is, at one time, magical and true to life. But, like poetry, the writing is there to help you to see and imagine, to experience again the emotional depth of our human moments, and the transforming power of language itself.
''During his life, Giono wrote over fifty volumes of fiction, poetry, and praise. His work was highly regarded in Europe and America, and now a half dozen of his novels have been released in English. His stories range from the historical to the mythical; for me so far, Joym is the most luminous and satisfying. It is rare that I've come across writing that mingles so intimately and challenges so thoroughly your personal vision.''
''In summer, if one is not reading something watery, one is at least beside the water, reading; with David James Duncan's new novel, The River Whym, I've been doing both,'' says Robert Marquand Jr. His interview with Andre Gregory - of the film ''My Dinner With Andre'' - appeared on Feb. 7.
''Written in an exuberant, folksy style that is something of a cross between Mark Twain and current novelist Tom Robbins, Duncan gives us the world through the eyes of Gus Orviston, an Oregon fishing fanatic who is hardly as two-dimensional as he first seems.
''We also meet the delightful Bill Bob, Gus's philosopher kid brother, and are privy to a host of refreshingly original characters and scenes, including a brilliantly crafted midnight trek upstream to learn the secrets of the salmon.
''This is a modern - repeat, modernm - tale of maturity and redemption incorporating the deft touches of a writer who takes life quite seriously, yet at the same time knows how to portray it in gentle, funny, loving terms. One wields the phrase 'new voice' somewhat cautiously these days. But we may have an example here.''
''The basic facts of art are so obvious that one hardly thinks about them,'' notes Mary Cowen, who discussed Braque's painting in ''Making mystery fair game'' Aug. 1. ''Yet The Life of Forms in Artm, by Henri Focillon, makes one think. When I recently reread it I was struck by one comment in particular.
''Focillon notes that the substance with which an artist works determines the form his product assumes. He writes about periodic changes of style. He remarks on the recurrence of certain forms and styles.
'' 'Perhaps,' he says, 'each style, each state of a style, even each technique seeks out by preference a certain state of man's nature, a certain spiritual family' which he thinks transcends time and place.
''That statement makes me more aware of why I am drawn to certain works of art rather than to others. Having been drawn also to Focillon I wonder if we are members of the same family of the spirit, or is this just a passing encounter?''
''William Warner's prizewinning Beautiful Swimmersm continues to provide fascinating rereading for all generations here by the Chesapeake where his crabs and crabbers form part of our lives,'' says Elisavietta Ritchie, last heard from in ''A hammock for mem?'' on Aug. 1.
''Now we have Warner's new book, Distant Waterm, a beautifully written, exciting, informative, sad, and ultimately optimistic description of the sudden rise of the factory-equipped freezer stern trawlers which catch, process, and deliver millions of tons of fish, especially from the North Atlantic Banks. It also details the fishing industry's somewhat negative effect on the fish. The leap from small fishing operations which were already beginning to deplete some species to the fleets of huge, foreign factory ships whose trawls haul in everything alive, tearing up the sea floor, was rapid and devastating.
''Warner's gift for lyrical description does not romanticize the fisherman toiling on the storm-washed decks, or below in the holds where the fish are processed. He gives straightforward accounts from American, West German, British , and even Soviet vessels.
''Warner's ear for dialogue, and his sympathy for the crews, make this as much a page-turner as any thriller.''