Critical Mass

Dog Days of Summer Reads: John Freeman

By John Freeman

My time has been really fractured this summer with unpacking and traveling, so I’ve picked up a lot of writer’s journals to fill the gaps. Donald Hall’s “Life Work” has been strangely gripping, what with his daily to do lists, his ruminations on the sublimating power of work. Hall has written so much about that house in New Hampshire where he lives that I’m beginning to think of it less as a place than a state of mind. I find it odd that a creative mind can work with such Spartan organization (he describes waiting for the alarm to go off at 4:45 AM, so eager is he to get to his desk) at such a mysterious activity (making a poem work) without getting in the way of itself.

Joyce Carol Oates’ journals from the ‘70s, which Ecco will release in the fall, are equally fascinating, but a bit more typical to the form. They’re full of self-admonishing aphorisms about the writing life, notes about people she meets or comes in contact with (Philip Roth and Stanley Elkin among them), updates from an almost decade-long battle with an unstable stalker who won’t leave her alone.

I stayed up last night finishing David Markson’s “The Last Novel,” which in its own way is a writer’s diary (or a novel as a series of notes jangled from the literary cerebral cortex). The form is almost a gimmick, but the book is mesmerizing nonetheless – all these connections mapped through it like spider webs, invisible until you stumble through them. I guess it highlights the fact that, in addition to story, what we seek in reading is access to (or friction with) a writer’s mind.

Lastly, I’ve been slowly picking through Coetzee’s new essays, “Inner Workings,” the title of which refers to the work he covers, but to me also addresses the way one feels watching that perfect machine of his rational intellect humming away beneath you on the page, so apparent it’s as if the prose was molded from glass. –NBCC President John Freeman