05/06/12 9:00pm
05/06/2012 9:00 PM

We have an old copy of ‘Petersen’s Field Guide to the Birds.’ We’ve spotted most of the usual suspects, and also have seen some unusual ones. An American kestrel surprised us on Main Bayview in Southold one day — high up in the wires scanning the fields for lunch. An indigo bunting landed on our deck, a kingfisher perched on a dock pole and a snow goose and its two Canada sidekicks worked our lawn, the three waddling around looking like escapees from “The Biggest Loser.” The best sighting, though, came on a bright, bitter-cold morning: a full-blown male pheasant scrounging birdseed beneath our feeder, standing atop three feet of snow that had fallen that night. Birds are splendid affairs, sort of God’s tree ornaments, a quick burst of eye-catching nature.

There are many fine books about nature: ‘Walden Pond,’ Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac,’ Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us,’ to name a vintage few. Such writers not only give us glimpses of nature’s wonders but do so in language so vivid that we practically see what they’re looking at. A new such author has attracted attention, Carl Safina. ‘The View from Lazy Point’ is written beautifully, but the neat thing is that he’s writing about a neighbor, Lazy Point being a small stub of land on the west shore of Napeague Harbor, facing either the bay or the ocean, depending on your viewpoint.

Safina explores the woods and the ponds, hikes the beaches, sees, remembers and reports. He has strong opinions on what’s happening to our world. Here he is on chickadees in late January: “Their roaming flocks, formed for winter safety, will disband as the birds reassert property claims in the pines. They feel the world changing, and they change their tune. Can we do less? ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world,’ ” said Marcel Proust.” Like the writers before him, Safina sees the sad lack of concern the world clings to as innovation, progress and money remain the goals. Mother Nature? Well, she’s nice, too.

There’s a famous book that tells of a time when nature betrayed us. In the 1930s the rain quit the Midwest and the wind and dust took over. Steinbeck told the story: The people had to leave, their livelihoods blown away, their homes worthless, their future hopeless. They went West and in doing so changed the face of the country. The West Coast, with its rich soil, bountiful ocean and huge forests, absorbed them, revised itself and flourished with them. The Midwest, of course, recovered. Nature hadn’t betrayed us; it shoved us into the future, and seems to be shoving again. I’m a positive guy, but what’s with all the tornados? What happened to the icebergs? Where did all the codfish go? Why are the bees and the bats dying? Seventy degrees in March?

If nature is speaking, we need to listen, put personal NIMBYs and attitudes aside and — dare I say it? — change. Let’s separate our trash, take back our empties and conserve our fuels, for openers. Let’s support new ideas and find other ways to respond to the wake-up call.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

02/04/12 12:00pm
02/04/2012 12:00 PM

And so it is in human life the goal
To seek, forever seek, the kindred soul
Jose Marti

St. Valentine’s Day is next week — the day that urges us to search for love, to find love, to celebrate it and work hard to maintain it. Songs, yet another form of short story, work as well as any medium in exploring these stages. They have the added benefit of forever rattling around in our heads as reminders.

“Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in too many faces, searching around, looking for traces …” A catchy song, but the urgency to find someone is palpable. Didn’t we all date some handsome young boys and some smart young girls but the BINGO never happened and the search continued. From Barbara Cook in “The Music Man,” waiting, wondering, singing to the stars, “Goodnight, my someone, goodnight, my love” to the rather desperate “if that isn’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along,” the longing continues, the quest goes on.

Then “Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day,” and Irving Berlin remembered, “For the longest while, I’d forget to smile, then I met you.” Rodgers and Hart rejoiced, “I took one look at you, that’s all I had to do, and then my heart stood still”; the Beatles are whooping, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”; and even Tony Bennett, who had previously left his heart in San Francisco, sings out, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart.” The shadows are gone, the smile is back, hearts stand still and sing. Yeah! Yeah!

And then — dark clouds. Streisand and Diamond hissing and moaning, “You don’t bring me flowers any more” and Willie Nelson explaining that yes, this and that happened “but you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.” Nice try, Willie. And Billie Holiday warning, “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on — just when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.” And St. Valentine is frowning.

Then, sometimes, it is gone. And all the clever phrases — “a total eclipse of the heart,” “every heart for itself,” “in the wee small hours of the morning” — are exactly that: clever phrases, mere words trying to ease the pain. Fantine, in “Les Misérables,” knows the bleakness: “He spent a summer by my side, he filled my dreams with endless longing. He took my childhood in his stride, but he was gone when autumn came.” Gone. Finished. Emptiness. And St. Valentine is weeping.

We all need not let it get that far. We need to swallow our pride, suck it up, check our baggage, get real, talk it through, apologize, lose an attitude, get over it, forgive and generally bust our butts doing the things that love needs in order to flourish and survive.

“You may not be an angel, for angels are so few, but until the day that one comes along, I’ll string along with you.” Still expecting an angel? Be serious.

And hey, you: “You’re all I ever needed, baby, you’re the one.”

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

01/21/12 12:22pm
01/21/2012 12:22 PM

January is the month for resolutions, for fresh starts, for trying to get things right. Mostly we focus on our bodies, trying to lose weight, get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sometimes we focus on getting better organized or being kinder. There is a list from an article in American Songwriter magazine that has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages of 33 resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote down in his own handwriting in 1942, full of very sensible advice to self, the 13th being “read lots good books.”

Just this week, author Walter Dean Myers was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy. He will be urging people to read good books, including, no doubt, some of his own dark and realistic titles, “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Monster,” “Bad Boy.” His is an urban, African-American voice writing gritty fiction that is far away from the wizards, dragons, English boarding schools and other recent staples of young people’s literature. But his own story, about how reading and then writing books rescued him from the violence and chaos of his environment, will surely resonate with many young people.

So the advice is to read good books, but the question is which ones are good for you? Someone asked Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet and he responded with a list of seven books, all available as free e-book downloads and all (except maybe the Bible) written by men:

The Bible, “The System of the World” by Isaac Newton, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Tyson is an astrophysicist and a very smart person, certainly entitled to his opinion — “If you read all of the works above, you will have profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world” — and it’s sort of cool that all those titles are available free for digital downloading, but it’s just one person’s list. And personally, I have gotten to the point where any list that excludes the half of the human race that I belong to is a list that I feel free to ignore.

One thing to consider about resolving to read more good books is that, like resolving to exercise more, eat healthier, be kinder, etc., one’s success will depend on some mental or spiritual ability, some kind of willpower or energy. When I am feeling energetic and strong, then I enjoy reading challenging books that force me to think in new ways. When I am feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I read easier titles. Resolutions might be a good way of reminding oneself of one’s aspirations. Is this the year I will start rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust — in French this time? Probably not. Nor will I run a marathon or lose 20 pounds. But perhaps there are some realistic aspirations I can articulate and accomplish.

1. Read more poetry.
2. Read more short stories.
3. Use my online Goodreads account to keep track of and share my reading.
4. Explore new magazines and newspapers instead of depending on familiar ones.
5. Read books aimed at different age groups and demographics.
6. Read aloud to children when given the opportunity.
7. Try to read some French and Spanish beyond menus.
8. Every once in a while, read at least one book I wouldn’t think I’d like.

That last piece of advice is the one that motivated me to pick up “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I am usually interested in the Man Booker winners but, for some reason, I’ve been avoiding Julian Barnes. Too English, too middle-aged, too refined, repressed — I don’t know, just not my type. But this novel, or novella at a scant 163 pages, was a revelation.

I must be careful not to give too much away, because it turns out to be a cleverly plotted page-turner masquerading as an elegiac memoir. More than one reviewer remarks that its short length is deceptive, because when you finish it, you will want to immediately reread it in its entirety. It is about aging, time, remorse, memory and history, about some of the very terrible things we can do to each other in our youth, about how we forget or make up stories so we can survive our middle age and how we can be derailed in old age by confronting what may be the truth. The whole book is unreliably narrated by a bald old man who is not especially sympathetic, but the elegant unfolding of the tale is mesmerizing, and it is a really good book. Exactly the sort of thing you should read if you are resolved to read some good books this year.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

01/08/12 4:09pm
01/08/2012 4:09 PM

“War Horse” opened recently to rave reviews. A Spielberg movie, a Broadway play, from a book by Michael Morpurgo — eat your hearts out, all you authors out there. I started thinking about other books in which a central character was an animal. There are some good horse books, “Seabiscuit” being the best I’ve read. The courage of the animal and the determination of the trainer were inspirational. “Black Beauty” (1877!) was not only a publishing success but became a strong force in animal cruelty legislation.

Good dog books abound, not necessarily about good dogs. “Cujo” was one of the scariest books ever, with poor Donna trapped in her Pinto with 4-year-old Tad, while the rabid Cujo slathered saliva all over her windshield. Multiple dead bodies, including Tad. Thanks a lot, Stephen.

“The Incredible Journey” had two nifty dogs, Bodger, the old, half-blind bull terrier, and Luath, the young, tireless Lab, traveling 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness to rejoin their family. Alongside them was Tao, the Siamese cat who kept them all in food, killing small animals and birds.

After horses, dogs and cats the search got exotic. Rosy, the elephant in “Water for Elephants,” played a huge role in how the story played out. I wondered how they would film such a complex plot and thought they did a credible job. The book was better than the movie, often the case, but without Rosy there was no story.

Remember “Watership Down”? A bunch of rabbits living in the woods are seeking a new home and unknowingly settle in a rabbit farm, where they’re treated wonderfully but are just being fattened up for the meat market. Their wise leader manages their escape, but there are enough dumb bunnies to keep the story interesting. There’s a final battle with a band of nasty rabbits, sort of a bad hare day, but ingenuity prevails as they free a nasty dog and lead him, ravenous, into the bad guys’ camp.

And talk about community, what about the mixed grill in “Animal Farm,” the super-society where all pigs are supposedly equal but some pigs turn out to be more equal than others. Old McDonald without the music, it’s on every 100 Best List.

OK. We’re down to the sleek otter in “A Ring of Bright Water” and the hawks in “Red Tails in Love,” with sophisticated New Yorkers watching hawks copulating 20 stories up like avian OB/GYNs. A most enjoyable book.

Let’s not forget fish stories, although I doubt Melville would appreciate seeing “Moby-Dick” so categorized. We’re left with the terrifying “Jaws,” and if I were to dream of Cujo one night and Jaws the next I would check into a psychiatric ward. The music made this movie better than the book, but still … (Do you have an aquarium? If a goldfish is pregnant, how do you know when her water breaks?)

We’re down to the most unusual literary creature: Don Marquis’ “Archy,” the philosophizing cockroach who nightly leapt upon the keys of a typewriter and, unable to manage the cap/punctuation shifts, produced poetry, e.g.:

if you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell
of course it wont cheer
you up much if
you expect to go there

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

12/17/11 3:34pm
12/17/2011 3:34 PM

I don’t know why people always say “I hate to say I told you so” when it’s perfectly clear that “I told you so” are some of the sweetest words in the language and people love to say them. What I am loving right now is that I told you so, dear readers, months and months ago, that all the gloom and doom about bookstores closing, books not being bought or read and the written word just lining up with the rest of the world to go to hell in a handbasket is at least a slight exaggeration, if not a downright alarmist fabrication.

Apparently, the first few weeks of the Christmas shopping season have been terrific for the booksellers this year, according to an article by Julie Bosman in the Dec. 13 New York Times titled “E-Books,Shmee-books: Readers Return to the Stores.”

Customers are attracted to this year’s vibrant selection and are not deterred by the higher prices of some titles. Books that might not have been expected to flourish in a time of economic gloom are flying off the shelves. Both ‘Harry Potter Page to Screen’ and ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ cost $75, ‘Mountain: Portraits of High Places’ weighs in at $85, while ‘The Art Museum’ published by Phaidon retails for $200.

Besides the coffee table books, regular nonfiction seems to be especially popular this year. ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, ‘Catherine the Great’ by historian Robert K. Massie and the memoir ‘Then Again’ by actress Diane Keaton are doing well in the biography section, and a book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a popular holiday gift, as are new fiction titles by bestselling authors like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Other big successes are ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami, ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman and ‘The Angel Esmeralda,’ a short story collection by Don DeLillo.

So perhaps the end of the world as we know it is on its way, but not here just yet. There is fear among the bookish that these e-book shmee-book reader things and tablets of various sorts will be given as presents this December and that subsequently all of civilization will crumble in January. It may happen. But meanwhile, it is more than interesting to me that the American Booksellers Association saw a 16 percent jump in the week including Thanksgiving, compared to the same period a year ago. Apparently people like going to bookstores and buying actual books to give as holiday presents to their friends and relatives during the great, dark gift-giving season and I, for one, think that’s terrific.

A terrific book that many younger readers will be given this year is ‘The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.’ Here’s the story behind “Chronicles”: In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg put out a book called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” that had beautiful, mystifying, full-page drawings, each with a caption and the title of a story that the drawing was supposed to illustrate. The construct was that a person named Harris Burdick had brought just the drawings to a children’s book publisher on spec, the publisher loved them and wanted to see the complete stories, Burdick promised to bring them the next day, then disappeared and was never heard from again.

Since the book was published, it has been used as a springboard by teachers and librarians to inspire creative writing. Countless young people have chosen their favorite from the 14 drawings and let their imaginations create completed stories.

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” includes the original drawings with their titles and captions, but it has 14 different well-known authors each tackling one of them and writing it their way. Some of them are quite marvelous. Like its predecessor, the book is a great publishing idea and this one may help to introduce readers to some interesting writers, but I hope the original book will still be used as a springboard for other stories. This must not be the end of the mysteries of Harris Burdick, just an example of some ways of looking and thinking about them.

Also for younger readers: ‘Wonderstruck’ by Brian Selznick, the author/illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’ which was the first time the Caldecott had been won by a novel. The Caldecott was designed to be awarded to a picture book, but “Hugo” is both a novel and a picture book and so is “Wonderstruck.” Both of them are very indebted to yet another format, that of film. Martin Scorsese just released the film version of “Hugo,” which features a most amazing opening shot that zooms down into and through Paris until you are inside the walls of a train station, where you meet the eponymous orphan whose adventures will immerse you in the earliest days of film itself, with Ben Kingsley as magician, impresario and film director George Melies. “Wonderstruck” may prove equally photogenic in a few years, but in the meantime, there is the book: hardcover, large, expensive and irresistible, apparently, to the holiday-minded, book-buying public.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

12/04/11 11:48am
12/04/2011 11:48 AM

I was recently in the Southold library Book Cottage and coughed up a dollar for a copy of “The Haunted Bridge” by Carolyn Keene. I presented it to my wife, who grinned. It’s No. 15 of the Nancy Drew mystery stories, a series that grew in number to 50. Fully 20 of these titles begin with either “The Clue of … ” or “The Mystery of …”, the most provocative being “The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.” The dogged Nancy solved all 50; my equally determined wife has read them all.

Aside from Nancy, my knowledge of female detectives was slight — Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta, Miss Marple, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and a few others being the extent of it. Curious, I surrendered to Google and found — are you ready for this? — a list so long that I stopped counting at 100 and had only arrived at the letter D. There must be 1,000 high-heeled gumshoes — not movie or TV characters, but book ladies — chasing bad guys, shooting serial killers and generally kicking butt. I started skimming the list.

In 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle created Irene Adler, an opera singer who solved crimes (and appeared in five Sherlock Holmes movies). Mary Roberts Reinhart, in 1914, brought Hilda Adams to life, in 1922 Agatha Christie dreamed up Tuppence Beresford and in 1937 Rex Stout introduced Theolinda “Dol” Bonner in a Nero Wolfe story. And I liked rediscovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote “The Thin Man,” featuring Nora Charles and what’s-his-name. Book first, then the movie.

As I streamed along it was entertaining to see how many writers gave unusual “regular jobs” to their crime chasers. I was wowed by Jessie Arnold, a champion dog-sled racer in Alaska, and Smokey Branton, an ex-stripper. There were nine different nuns (armed with three-foot oak pointers?). There was Lily Bard, a cleaning woman and karate expert from Shakespeare, Ark., and Natalie Brand, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Maine. I fell for Stella Crown immediately, a dairy farmer and biker — udder chaos meets road rage. Leading the pack, albeit near the alphabet’s end, stands Bubbles Yablonsky, beautician.

Another — dare I say — gimmick is the giving of arresting first names to these ladies. Bubbles? Sure. Tuppence? Why not. And Cat, and China, and Temperance and Seychelles, a tugboat captain. Are any of these many detectives gathering clues (or dust) in the Book Cottage? You’ll have to open your own investigation and do your own legwork. Kingsley Amis once said he wanted only to read books that begin, “A shot rang out.” He didn’t stipulate the gender of the trench-coated person who ambled in and cleaned up the mess.

Here’s a test for you. You have a two-volume encyclopedia in your bookcase. Each volume is 2 3/8 inches thick, the binding boards are all one-eighth of an inch. A bookworm starts eating its way through, starting on the first page of Volume 1 and chomping through to the last page of Volume 2. How far would you say he traveled? Send me your answers and we’ll post the results.

And once again, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

11/19/11 4:00am
11/19/2011 4:00 AM

One of the best things about going to the New York Library Association conference in Saratoga Springs a few weeks ago was the chance to listen to the writers R. David Lankes, Lewis Lapham and Chris Bohjalian.

R. David Lankes is a professor at the Syracuse library school and his books and talks are mainly of interest to the profession, so his talk, “Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by our Stacks,” was riveting. He posits a future in which libraries are places to learn, create and collaborate, not consume and check out.
He said, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” which may sound radical, but reminded me of when I was researching the origins of our library in Greenport. Back in the 1800s, there were various “improvement societies,” often run by a clergyman, whose members met monthly to share something of their experiences or talents. There were dramatic readings, poetry recitations, musical entertainments, travel talks and skits with costumes. A shared collection of books was an outgrowth of that community impulse that still informs much of what we do at libraries, but, according to Mr. Lankes, the sheer volume of books, shelves and stacks we have accumulated limit the time and space we can give over to community collaboration and knowledge creation. Something to think about and one reason that for some of us, the advent of e-readers is not completely terrible news.

Then I got to listen to Lewis Lapham, author of numerous books, most recently ‘Pretensions to Empire,’ who was for many years the editor of Harper’s Magazine and now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, A Magazine of History and Ideas. He is an aristocratic septuagenarian whose talk was not projected as a PowerPoint. He actually had the screen turned off, then sat and read his talk, written in his own hand, from a yellow pad, A bit of a self-described Luddite when it comes to technology, and the kind of thinker with a grasp of history that inevitably seems mostly bleak, he proved most genial and animated in the Q&A session after the talk.

I was predisposed to like Chris Bohjalian because I liked his first book, ‘Midwives.’ He talked about his new book, ‘The Night Strangers,’ which is doing pretty well despite the fact that it features ghosts instead of vampires (the ones getting all the attention these days). He talked about the two things that sparked the genesis of the novel. One was a nailed-shut door in the cellar of a house in rural Vermont that he and his wife had bought; the other was the news account of the successful emergency landing of a commercial plane in the Hudson River by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

In “The Night Strangers,” Mr. Bohjalian imagines the life of a pilot who attempts a similar emergency landing on Lake Champlain, but through no fault of his own fails in the attempt, and some of the passengers on his plane die. Bohjalian felt that in order to write the story as well as he could, he needed to experience a crash landing into water. He convinced the people who train National Guard pilots in Connecticut to let him do a training with them that, in a recreation of an airline cabin, involved being dunked into a huge tank, upside-down, restrained by a five-point harness with 38 seconds to unharness himself and swim toward a door. I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if I think the effort was worth it and how all that leads to ghosts and a mysterious cellar door.

One doesn’t have to travel as far as Saratoga Springs to hear writers talk about their work. Local libraries, including my own, make an effort to connect authors with readers on a regular basis. This fall, Floyd Memorial had a double reading featuring local authors Jackson Taylor and Terese Svoboda. I have already written in this column about Taylor’s debut novel, ‘The Blue Orchard,’ a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s life in Harrisburg, Pa., where she was the trusted white assistant to a powerful and politically connected black physician who performed abortions when it was illegal to do so. It’s a terrific book and Mr. Taylor did a lot of strenuous research of his own. Over 10 years, he talked to family members and spent time in Harrisburg libraries and courthouses, all while holding down a full-time job.

Terese Svoboda was recently featured on the NPR show “All Things Considered” talking about ‘Bohemian Girl,’ her fourth published novel, which is being widely hailed as a true American picaresque, part Huck Finn, part “True Grit” and a wholly original answer to Willa Cather’s iconic “My Antonia.” Listening to her read a bit from the beginning, where young Harriet has been sold as a slave by her father to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Pawnee Indian who has an obsession with building mounds, you hear how Ms. Svoboda’s ability to manipulate language and characters propels you into a dark and strange side of the Western frontier.

Most recently, we hosted Tom Clavin, a journalist and nonfiction writer from Sag Harbor. He talked about his 2007 book, ‘Dark Noon: The Final voyage of the Fishing Boat Pelican,’ which recounts the tragedy that took place in 1951, when an overfull party fishing boat out of Montauk capsized and lost two-thirds of its passengers.

He also talked about his most recent book, ‘Last Men Out,’ co-authored with Bob Drury. You may remember a photograph of a helicopter on top of a building with a long line of people on ladders climbing up toward it. The erroneously captioned photo was widely believed for 36 years to be the last helicopter out of Saigon atop the roof of the U.S. Embassy. In fact, it was a photo of a CIA chopper on a nearby building the day before the final evacuation. When the “last” helicopter left Saigon, there were 11 Marines left on the roof of the embassy. Mr. Clavin masterfully told us the story up to a cliff-hanging moment of suspense, so that the whole audience was on tenterhooks, wanting to know what would happen next.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

10/27/11 2:00am
10/27/2011 2:00 AM

There is a wonderful new website called OccupyWriters.com that has an ever-lengthening alphabetical list of writers who are in support of Occupy Wall Street and a few meditations on the protest by several of them. On the list, each person is identified as the writer or editor of just one work, which is leveling, democratic and much easier to digest than complete bibliographies.

Of the meditations, I very much liked the first of “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance”: “If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.”

Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, is the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a marvelous group of 13 dyspeptic books for literate children and their adults.

Other offerings include those by poet Anne Waldman, who writes most copiously; the novelist Francine Prose, who writes most movingly; and another writer (one who would be down there in Zucotti Park himself if he were still alive), who provides the best quote. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s how you feel when you are there in the park: large and Whitmanesque with a poetic view of the huge diversity of humanity. It could make you cry, like Francine Prose, or dance to the beat of the drum circle, or go visit the library that is set up in one corner of the park. When I was there for the second time, all seven lined-up folding chairs were occupied by people reading donated paperbacks and the name-tagged librarians were busy sorting books into different categories, just like in a brick-and-mortar library. A library is not a building, it is a state of mind, a place where librarians do their work, a place where books and ideas are shared.

The number 13 reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. It seems new and shiny as a penny every time I read it, despite that it was first published in 1917. My mother recently rediscovered some favorite poetry books and spent several days reading and enjoying poems she hadn’t read in decades. People often think they don’t like to read poetry, even when they are avid readers of other forms. Poetry seems “hard,” which is odd since it’s really a way of playing with words.

A poet was the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s short poem “Slow Music” contains a stanza that made me think of our Long Island Sound beaches, like 67 Steps in Greenport:
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come among good-sized stones with peaceful backs. The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the sea.

“Preludes,” another of his poems, says: “Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not a popularity contest. Many Americans, including myself, had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer before he won the prize. Most of the Swedish writers we know are the writers of dark mysteries, nordic noir, like Stieg Larsson and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series or Henning Mankell with his Inspector Kurt Wallander. But the Nobel Prize will mean that some people will search out and read some of Tranströmer’s poetry and perhaps discover that reading poetry is not so “hard” and maybe they will find something there to play with.

One American writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1954 was Ernest Hemingway. He turns up as a character in a terrific new book by William Kennedy called ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.’ William Kennedy is best known for his Albany cycle of novels, which includes “Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed.”
Much of this new novel also takes place in Albany, on the day in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. But we get to know our hero, Quinn, when he is a young journalist in Cuba in 1957, having encounters and interviews with Hemingway and Fidel Castro among real historical characters, and beautiful women and jazz pianists among the fictional characters. It is a splendid novel, a novel with a great jazz soundtrack underneath the sprawl of characters and ideas. Kennedy is such a pro (so far he’s won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur) that he is like a seasoned performer up on stage. He makes you, the audience, the reader, feel relaxed and able to listen, because you know you are in the hands of an expert and he will not let the balls drop or embarrass himself — or embarrass you.

Far, far from the prizewinners and the pros of prose are the sign-makers of Zucotti Park. Who knows what jobs, if any, they have in “real” life or whether or not they’ve won any prizes ever. It doesn’t matter. They find some cardboard, some markers or paints, and they choose some words, their own or someone else’s. Maybe they find the words they want at the makeshift library, which is collecting an archive of used signs for posterity. Maybe they find them in a book. Some are funny, some profane, some simple, some full of numbers, some poetic and some truly tragic. They are large. They contain multitudes. Walt Whitman would be proud.

Long live the people’s poetry!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.