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December 5, 2001

The Way
We Read Now!

By William Germanon

On September 11, when the world changed, I tried to do the simplest things I knew how to. I counted family members and friends as a parent counts a newborn's fingers and toes. Whatever else might happen, they were all here. I went home. There were the television and the endless footage, the radio reports, the cellphone conversations, and later the newspapers. But sitting in the park on that beautiful and horrible afternoon, I wanted something else. I wanted to read a book.

Narratives were out of the question. Bleak House might be right for a summer cottage or a stay in the hospital, but my mind couldn't wrap itself around anything that big, not now, not yet. My hand reached instead for a battered red paperback I'd slogged through before: an introductory Latin grammar. I don't know why, exactly. I was a terrible student of classical languages, but this worn manual offered immersion in another world. Here be complicate rules, the discrete objectives of conjugation, a cast of characters long gone from the stage.

I still read the papers, still followed the news. But for days, the grammar was in my hand, offering me difficult labor in tiny units, and I relished the mental exhaustion. It wasn't exactly like reading -- it was more like a focalization exercise, the kind of thing some people do to shake off migraines.

Then, somewhere around the imperfect subjunctive for deponent verbs, my Latin self-study began to fail me. The exercises had become eerily familiar: "When the wicked plots against the republic had been discovered, the citizens of bad character were driven out by the force of the very powerful guardians." Or, "Had you studied better books, you would not have attempted to destroy the city." The spell broke. My son Christian and I read Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants, a favorite among his classmates (and everywhere else kid is spoken). But I couldn't touch real books, not yet.

Wondering if others were managing to read, I asked some friends in the academy -- or, like myself, near neighbors in publishing -- what books they had picked up since the disaster. Nobody confessed to Germs or Twin Towers or Body for Life or The Prayer of Jabez. (These are all on's best-seller list.) Here instead is what I heard in the days following September 11:

Many could not read. Amy-lynn Fischer, sales manager at the University of California Press and a transplanted New Yorker, hasn't been able to read anything at all. Days of nonstop television had contaminated her dreams. "I found I wasn't sleeping," she said, "having terrible nightmares with all the images being replayed in my dreams, only in my dreams I was in the rubble, the debris, clawing to get out." She switched to a strict diet of National Public Radio, and her sleeping improved. No books, though. I didn't suggest Cicero.

Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press, has been "following the common wisdom that it was best to do what we normally do," which meant working on manuscripts and reading about publishing. Part of his week was spent with Jason Epstein's The Book Business and André Schiffrin's The Business of Books. "In the wake of last week's events," he said, "Epstein's book reads like a soothing reminiscence, Schiffrin's like an alarm."

The writer Wayne Koestenbaum, who teaches in Manhattan at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, has been reading a biography of the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and studying some of Seeger's work at the keyboard, which is a different kind of reading. Koestenbaum writes that "this week I've been thinking about the fact that much of the music in the concert repertoire, or even on its margins (like Seeger's music), was composed in or around war or historical calamity." (Seeger's difficult life ended at 52. Only connoisseurs know her work, while everyone knows about her stepson, Pete.) Koestenbaum, who can read fast, then picked up Virgil Thomson's American Music Since 1910. "Thomson's sensible just-folks tone seemed the sort of voice I wish I could hear on the airwaves, telling me what to feel and what to do," he said. After all that American music, he read a Buddhist self-help book.

Some people have been able to reach out to the bookshelf and touch a pulse. The philosopher Arthur Danto, another New Yorker, told me: "I had read As You Like It recently, and it made me laugh. So I decided to read it again, before going on to some of Shakespeare's other comedies. This morning I woke up from a dream in which I was acting in one of these plays, with cowslips (which I could not identify in waking life), brooks, and clowns. I felt very happy, but then with a crash the present world hit me, and I am back where I have been since it happened, housing this terrible cloud in my chest."

The art historian James Elkins, who hails from upstate New York and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is an intrepid traveler. His plans included Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, at least until September 11. Now he found himself reading books that had nothing at all to do with politics. I'd known him for years as a man of boundless curiosity, so I wasn't surprised when he told me he'd just bought books on "the habits of chickadees and one on the species of the amoeba. I don't mean this to sound flippant," he said, adding, "ever since the Romantics, natural history has been a refuge from politics."

Robert Orsi is a New Yorker and a professor of religious studies who has just moved from Indiana University to Harvard. "Long before this horrible moment," he said, "I'd assigned my students Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address for this week in a survey course on American religious history since the Civil War. Many of them now report that they found it comforting, and many have also said that they thought the comparison between Lincoln's religious reflection -- and in particular his care not to claim to know God's ways, and his sense of the endless mystery of pain and suffering -- and Bush's sermon (what else can it be called?) at the memorial service in Washington was instructive."

As for his own book list, Orsi has been rereading the spiritual writings of Frederick Buechner. "And then when the world becomes too much to bear," he added, "I've dusted off some old comfort readings from my childhood -- Guareschi's stories of Don Camillo and Peppone, the priest and the communist." Like other people I talked to, he pointed to the need to read more widely in the literature of terrorism, about the Taliban, about geopolitics. But I wasn't looking for what people knew they should be reading, just what they were able to embrace, or be embraced by, this week.

Mary Beard, who teaches classics at the University of Cambridge, found herself reading Lord of the Flies. I asked her why that merry romp, of all things. "I have all kinds of other reasons for doing so," she said. "Both my kids are reading it at school, and I never have (culpably), so was feeling left out. And I've just written a paragraph about Golding's notorious visit to the Parthenon and felt I owed it to him to read the chef-d'oeuvre." Being asked what she was reading had called her up short. "I think, God, I've chosen to read that during this week ... a total rule of the unconscious. Suffice it to say that it's a horribly acute tale of the breakdown of civilization after disaster."

Over at the Library of America, the publisher Max Rudin reported that he had become addicted to his Palm Pilot, compulsively devouring headlines and news stories even as he walked through New York City streets on the way to an appointment. As for books, fiction has felt too thin. "I've been finding Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon the most satisfyingly intelligent escapist reading," he said. "Basking in an appreciation of a real city that in the face of war and disaster has remained committed to civilization and urbanity provides a sort of comfort, and at least a temporary antidote to the new reality we wake up to every morning."

The University of California professor Paul Rabinow, a specialist in French thought, has been keeping up with views from Paris. His mornings include Le Monde and Libération on the Web. Some of the day's remainder has gone to a new translation of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and to Pascal.

Like most people I know, Catharine Stimpson, a dean at New York University, has been reading The New York Times and her e-mail. ("Are you OK?" must be the most often-read sentence in Manhattan messages this week.) But she's been reading other things, too. "Given how close my job and home are to ground zero, I have been looking at the plumes of smoke and ash, at the walls and fences that now post fliers about the missing. Heartbreaking fliers." Stimpson's reading this week includes one book, "because of its beauty and mingled compassion and anger": Psalms.

Also at NYU, Manthia Diawara, who heads up the Africana-studies program, was reading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's timely Empire, and immersing himself in "The Guardian (London), the French press, BBC, CNN, the International Herald Tribune, and every editorial I can lay my hands on." He added dryly, "I also have a lot of class assignments."

In Cleveland, Timothy Beal, who teaches religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, has been reading "tiny fragments -- never more than a few sentences -- from works that don't really fit together." He named his tasting menu: Clifford Geertz, Mieke Bal, Talal Asad, Michael Barkun, Paul Celan. In the midst of this, he said, "I am especially drawn to instructional manuals for window repair and brick-mortar replacement." He's been doing household repair. "But," he added, "I suspect it's also a very concrete work of mourning." The unintended pun was surely just that. I was struck by the end of his note: "On Friday, my daughter Sophie, 10, decided to start reading four novels at a time, because she wanted them 'to converse.'"

Michael Taussig, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, has been reading Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari, although he confessed these were classroom readings. But he'd also found a video of John Huston's film The Man Who Would Be King, "because it's a story of imperialism and Afghanistan." I credited him with reading Kipling by proxy.

At Dartmouth, the New Yorker Lawrence Kritzman was also reading Derrida -- "'Faith and Knowledge,' which helped me transcend the absolutism of the unreflective media." Out of this complex text he could draw solace from Derrida's analysis of religious fundamentalism, Western or Muslim, and the philosopher's optimism. Kritzman writes that Derrida "imagines a place that is not one, a geophysical abstraction where religion is practiced as a messianic universal without messianism, capable of displacing violence and enabling us to dream of a justice yet to come." Dreams of justice, dreams and justice, turned up in what many had to say.

Two sometime co-authors, Linda and Michael Hutcheon, she a professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto, he a physician, haven't been reading anything at all. For them, music, opera specifically, might speak what literature could not. "We turned to opera for solace -- or at least for a sense of common mortality, maybe the inevitability of death -- to help us deal with the otherwise impossible sadness," she said. "I think the consolatory fiction of watching or hearing a death given artistic and emotional meaning is one of the functions of staging the end of life. Opera becomes a contemplatio mortis -- a preparation at the same time as a consolation. Freud said it all in 1915 about drama, but it fits opera, too."

Michael Flamini, a vice president at Palgrave, works here in New York in the Flatiron Building. I can see it from my office's corner, and from his -- until last week -- he had a good view of the World Trade Center. "I've been reading Auden," he told me, "specifically the poems 'How History Will Judge Me,' 'The Chimeras,' 'Elegy for the City,' and one about hate that I can't remember the exact name of." He thought Eliot's "The Waste Land" would be next up. But music -- music with words -- helped patch his week together, too. "I found great comfort in listening to Verdi's Requiem and reading the text."

This was a week of bad dreams and endless news coverage, and in between, when the clouds parted just enough, philosophy and fiction, everyday business and treasured comedy, politics and sacred texts. Many of these books are, of course, being reread. It struck me that if every rereading re-creates its text and alters its reader, how much more different are these rereadings. How different are we ourselves.

I guess that reading about what others are reading is a bit like looking at other people's plates in a restaurant. A week has passed, and I'm hungry for books. For music, too. I will listen to the Verdi Requiem, and this time, at least I will understand the Latin a bit better. I began this week away from books, unable to read even one, and I haven't had a good feeling about it. We need our books. We need them for solace and connection, for escape and comfort. We need them for political and historical facts that can help us make sense out of a world resisting our effort. Books will teach us the new language spoken here. We read, too, so we might find that part of ourselves forever wandering away, distracted, from the tasks we hope to undertake. We read to call ourselves back.

I've got my newspaper and news magazine reading to get through. The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian. But I'm ready now for the writers who can call me back. I might start with Tocqueville, or maybe Donne's Sermons. And in between everything else, New Yorkers. Whitman, E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, Auden even.

Most of all, I want to spend time with writers who knew what moved and moves my beloved city.

        [Editor's Note: William Germano is vice president and publishing director at Routledge Pub. Co..]

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