Willard Spiegelman writes essays like Ferran Adria approached “molecular” gastronomy, with conscious, understated artistry.
While generally a hopeful sort, here and there in this slim but thoughtful collection of essays, Spiegelman is as glum as he is enthusiastic, not least on the paradox of humanity’s insignificance.
But if lucidity and essence, alloyed with depth, are what he expects of great writing, he generally delivers what he advocates. And with an elastic, youthful temperament that belies the book’s title. The author’s reflections on growing older frame the book; they do not define it.
Spiegelman, 71, distinguished professor of English at Southern Methodist University and former editor of the Southwest Review, is most engaging on the subject he knows best. He defines good writing as what makes you interested in something you are not interested in. Yet few of these pieces lack relevance. Spiegelman is especially adroit on poetry, admiring verse that seduces through “condensation and expansive suggestiveness,” prompting each reader to respond to and decipher it individually. In any field of writing, he respects and seeks out those demonstrating “cool clarity, sharpened perception, and a transparent style.”
Occasionally, this prompts the native Philadelphian to be offhand and a bit waspish regarding work he considers less aesthetically sound or pleasing, but perhaps this comes with the territory, and he certainly has a right to his preferences.
On other matters, one may disagree with any number of his pronouncements, such as “the most compelling revelations always come to travelers in the most ordinary situations,” that in our digital age “all that recommends books as material objects” is their decorative appeal or “their manifestation of cultural capital,” or that, more prosaically, “driving closes the mind to everything but driving itself.” Certainly, all these things depend on the individual.
A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Spiegelman deals with the glories of books and reading as well as the freedom of saying “No thanks” to many a book, including some celebrated classics. READ MORE