On the Couch with Philip Roth, at the Morgue with Pol Pot

Woodcut by Félix Vallotton

As a rule, I read and write poetry in bed; philosophy and serious essays sitting down at my desk; newspapers and magazines while I eat breakfast or lunch, and novels while lying on the couch. It’s toughest to find a good place to read history, since what one is reading usually is a story of injustices and atrocities and wherever one does that, be it in the garden on a fine summer day or riding a bus in a city, one feels embarrassed to be so lucky. Perhaps the waiting room in a city morgue is the only suitable place to read about Stalin and Pol Pot?

Oddly, the same is true of comedy. It’s not always easy to find the right spot and circumstances to allow oneself to laugh freely. I recall attracting attention years ago riding to work on the packed New York subway while reading Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and bursting into guffaws every few minutes. One or two passengers smiled back at me while others appeared annoyed by my behavior. On the other hand, cackling in the dead of the night in an empty country house while reading a biography of W.C. Fields may be thought pretty strange behavior too.

Wherever and whatever I read, I have to have a pencil, not a pen—preferably a stub of a pencil so I can get close to the words, underline well-turned sentences, brilliant or stupid ideas, interesting words and bits of information, and write short or elaborate comments in the margins, put question marks, check marks and other private notations next to paragraphs that only I—and sometimes not even I—can later decipher. I would love to see an anthology of comments and underlined passages by readers of history books in public libraries, who despite the strict prohibition of such activity could not help themselves and had to register their complaints about the author of the book or the direction in which humanity has been heading for the last few thousand years.

Witold Gombrowicz says somewhere in his diaries that we write not in the name of some higher purpose, but to assert our very existence. This is true not only of poets and novelists, I think, but also of anyone who feels moved to deface pristine pages of books. With that in mind, for someone like me, the attraction some people have for the Kindle and other electronic reading devices is unfathomable. I prefer my Plato dog-eared, my Philip Roth with coffee stains, and can’t wait to get my hands on that new volume of poetry by Sharon Olds I saw in a bookstore window late last night.

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