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A coule of days ago I wrote a post reflecting the kind of thing I  feel at the start of every term these days–and I really wish I had kept a link to the New Yorker article that explained the way teacher tenure works, for Mab, because although it’s much worse in NY than in CT, the system is essentially the same–

But anyway, I wrote this kind of depressive post, and a lot of you got alarmed and worried about me, and I appreciate that.  But the reason that post sounded so odd and so oddly without energy is only partially the emotions I was feeling.

Partly, it was due to the fact that I was, and am, reading one of those books that seem to make me incapable of writing anything.

I’ve said on several occasions, now, that for me reading has a component very like listening to music for most people.  Good prose and bad prose are at least partially determined, for me (I keep saying that), by how the work sounds in my head.  Some people write prose so good  (think Norman Mailer) that it overrides any considerations of content.  I once read sixteen solid pages of a Mailer novel before I realized that, on any rational level, the man was making absolutely no sense at all.

Some prose is so bad it’s like the proverbial nails on the blackboard, which none of my students would get because they’ve never had blackboards, they’ve had white boards and markers.

But you know what I mean.  Clunky, cliched, jerky, jarring–and eventually I just put the book away.

Although I can read some really badly written stuff, if I’ve got some kind of incentive.

That said, the book I’m reading now–The American Future: A History, by Simon Schama–is not badly written.  It’s not Mailer and early Hemingway level well written, mind you, but it’s not bad, and the book itself is interesting. 

Schama is a professor of history at Columbia University who does a lot of work for the BBC.  His Histsory of Britain was spectacular in both book and video form, and for close to a decade now I’ve thought he was a Brit who just happened to be satisfyingly pro-American.  In fact, he’s an American from upstate New York. 

Which just goes to show, I suppose–Columbia’s history department is also  home to the notorious Eric Foner, who is, shall we say, not so pro-American.

In a way, Schama’s American biography is a bit ironic, as I got hold of this book because I thought it was yet one more of those things written by various Europeans where they come here, look around, interview a black ghetto gospel choir,. an unemployed factory worker, and the kind of hillbilly who keeps a statue of Jesus glued to his rifle scope to help h im kill the deer, and then declares that he’s “discovered” the “real America.” 

These can be absolutely hilarious, especially the ones written by French guys, and I recommned them to any American with a free afternoon.  Or just go do a search and see if you can find an article called “Notes from the Olive Garden” by James Lileks.

Actually, that’s here


and well worth reading, even if I’ve bugged you with it before. 

But in spite of not being that, the content is definitely interesting.  I’m on a long chapter, called “American  War,” outlining the history of the Meigs family in the United States Army, which includes a very laudatory sketch of the history of West Point and a few asides on why the US has a better officer class than anybody else, with “better” meaning “not so likely to think they’re better than anybody else and stage a coup.”

But I find that I just can’t write when I’m reading this thing.  The narrative voice–and there’s nothing wrong with it, really–creates a kind of white noise in my head, and nothing of my own ever forms there.

I have no idea why this should be so.  I have writers I can’t read when I write because I start to sound like bad imitations of them, because their own narrative voices are so strong that I can’t escape them, but that is not this. 

I have other writers I can always write to, and some–the mid-career P.D. James, all of George Steiner–who actually seem to make me write better, or at least make me feel that I’m writing better.   

And now it seems I’ve found a writer I like to read, but am going to have to give up when it comes time to producing serious work.

I think it’s very strange.

Written by janeh

September 19th, 2009 at 8:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Inspirations'

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  1. Simon Schama is American? Well, well. I’ve read quite a lot of his work (and have at least one sitting on the shelf waiting for me) but always assumed, like you, that he was British. I believe he taught at Oxford or Cambridge for a while, maybe that’s why.


    19 Sep 09 at 11:15 am

  2. Everything I can find quickly says Schama was born in London.


    19 Sep 09 at 11:30 am

  3. This made me laugh out loud:
    they come here, look around, interview a black ghetto gospel choir,. an unemployed factory worker, and the kind of hillbilly who keeps a statue of Jesus glued to his rifle scope to help h im kill the deer, and then declares that he’s “discovered” the “real America.” As did the piece you linked to. In the interests of fairness, I’m also driven mad by the foreign journalists who come to Russia — having never been here before so that their impressions will be “fresher” and somehow “more real” — go to a church, interview a priest, and either produce the “Russia’s spiritual revival” piece or, if the guy is a raving nationalist, the “Russian going down the road of chauvinism” piece. I also hate it when we get a new NYT reporter and have to go through his or her “discovery of Russia” process. I place bets on which month will give birth to the “I took my child to the playground and the old ladies made me put a hat on my free little American child” piece.

    The difference is — I think — that when Americans come to Russia, they seem determined to discover Russia’s complexity (even if they miss it). But when Europeans come to the US, they seem determined to prove that we are simpletons. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but…Bernard Levy might have been well-disposed to America and determined to prove French stereotypes wrong, but he still spent half of his time in prisons and being amazed that cops had heard of Tocqueville. Bleah.


    20 Sep 09 at 5:19 am

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