Reading 37

The following passage is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the New York Times (© 2009 by Arthur Krystal).

  1. That’s Vladimir Nabokov on my
  2. computer screen, looking both
  3. dapper and disheveled. He’s
  4. wearing a suit and a
  5. multibuttoned vest that
  6. scrunches the top of his tie.
  7. Large, lumpish, delicate and
  8. black-spectacled, he’s perched
  9. on a couch alongside the sleeker
  10. Lionel Trilling. Both men are
  11. fielding questions from a suave
  12. interlocutor with a B-movie
  13. mustache. The men are
  14. discussing Nabokov’s writing.
  15. “I do not . . . wish to touch
  16. hearts,” Nabokov says. “I don’t
  17. even want to affect minds very
  18. much. What I really want to
  19. produce is that little sob in
  20. the spine of the artist-reader.”
  21. Not bad, I think. In fact, a
  22. pretty good line to come up
  23. with off the cuff. But wait!
  24. What’s that Nabokov’s doing
  25. with his hands? He’s turning
  26. over index cards. He’s
  27. glancing at notes. He’s
  28. reading. Fluent in three
  29. languages, he relies on
  30. prefabricated responses to
  31. talk about his work. Am I
  32. disappointed? I am at first,
  33. but then I think: writers
  34. don’t have to be brilliant
  35. conversationalists; it’s not
  36. their job to be smart except,
  37. of course, when they write.
  38. Hazlitt remarked that he
  39. did not see why an author
  40. “is bound to talk, any more
  41. than he is bound to dance or
  42. ride better than other people.
  43. Reading, study, silence,
  44. thought are a bad
  45. introduction to loquacity.”
  46. Sounds right to me. Like
  47. most writers, I seem to be
  48. smarter in print than in
  49. person. In fact, I am smarter
  50. when I’m writing. I don’t
  51. claim this merely because
  52. there is usually no one
  53. around to observe the false
  54. starts and groan-inducing
  55. sentences that make a
  56. mockery of my presumed
  57. intelligence, but because
  58. when the work is going well,
  59. I’m expressing opinions that
  60. I’ve never uttered in
  61. conversation and that
  62. otherwise might never occur
  63. to me. Nor am I the first to
  64. have this thought, which,
  65. naturally, occurred to me
  66. while composing. According
  67. to Edgar Allan Poe, “Some
  68. Frenchman says: ‘People talk
  69. about thinking, but for my
  70. part I never think except
  71. when I sit down to write.” I
  72. agree with the thought,
  73. whoever might have formed
  74. it. And it’s not because writing
  75. helps me to organize my ideas,
  76. but because it actually creates
  77. thought or, at least supplies a
  78. Petri dish for its genesis.
  79. The Harvard psychologist
  80. Steven Pinker, however, isn’t
  81. so sure. Pinker sensibly points
  82. out that thinking precedes
  83. writing and that the reason
  84. we sound smarter when
  85. writing is because we
  86. deliberately set out to be clear
  87. and precise, a luxury not usually
  88. afforded us in conversation.
  89. When people who write for a
  90. living sit down to earn their
  91. pay they make demands on
  92. themselves that require a higher
  93. degree of skill than that
  94. summoned by conversation.
  95. Pinker likens this to
  96. mathematicians thinking
  97. differently when proving
  98. theorems than when counting
  99. change, or to quarterbacks
  100. throwing a pass during a game
  101. as opposed to tossing a ball
  102. around in their backyards.
  103. He does concede, however,
  104. that since writing allows time
  105. for reveries and ruminations,
  106. it probably engages larger
  107. swaths of the brain.
  108. Along these lines, it seems
  109. composers sometimes pick up
  110. different instruments when
  111. trying to solve musical
  112. problems. It’s not that a violin
  113. offers up secrets the piano
  114. withholds, but that the mind
  115. starts thinking differently
  116. when we play different
  117. instruments. Or maybe it’s
  118. just that the flow of thought
  119. alters when we write, which,
  120. in turn, releases sentences
  121. hidden along the banks of
  122. consciousness. There seems
  123. to be a rhythm to writing that
  124. catches notes that ordinarily
  125. stay out of earshot. At some
  126. point between formulating a
  127. thought and writing it down
  128. falls a nanosecond when the
  129. thought becomes a sentence
  130. that would, in all likelihood,
  131. have a different shape if we
  132. were to speak it. This rhythm,
  133. not so much heard as felt,
  134. occurs only when one is
  135. composing; it can’t be
  136. simulated in speech, since
  137. speaking takes place in real
  138. time and depends in part on
  139. the person or persons we’re
  140. speaking to. Wonderful
  141. writers might therefore turn
  142. out to be only so-so
  143. conversationalists, and people
  144. capable of telling great stories
  145. waddle like ducks out of water
  146. when they attempt to write.
  147. So the next time you hear a
  148. writer on the radio or catch him
  149. on the tube or watch him on
  150. the monitor or find yourself
  151. sitting next to him at dinner,
  152. remember he isn’t the author
  153. of the books you admire; he’s
  154. just someone visiting the world
  155. outside his study or office or
  156. wherever he writes. Don’t
  157. expect him to know the customs
  158. of the country, and try to forgive
  159. his trespasses when they occur.