Monday, April 25, 2011
Tried and True
This comes to us from the kind and wise, or wiseundkind, John Eklund who is our sales rep for Harvard, Yale and MIT Presses. He was also recently named sales rep of the year by Publisher's Weekly, our industry publication. John is a tireless friend to indies and you should read more of his book thoughts at Paper Over Board.
When I woke up the other night at 2:30, I flipped on the radio, counting on the dulcet tones of the BBC
to put me back to sleep. But on this occasion there was, as is often the case, something interesting
enough to have the opposite effect- a panel discussion on “Re-reading: good idea or bad?”
I know that lots of people swear by re-reading. If you love a book, why not go back to it? Who hasn’t
finished a great novel with a sigh, wishing it was possible to start all over again. Some people do!
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan says that she reads Pride & Prejudice once a year. With all due
respect to that wonderful book (and the Justice’s veracity), and with a nod to all the fresh nuance
one might glean with each reading- especially from the new annotated edition published by Harvard
last year, which seems made for the close reader- my reaction was really? With the mad cascade of
important books in the world clamoring for attention, spending time on one you’ve already read a
couple dozen times seems like squandering precious reading time. Maybe she’s a fast reader.
With every year that passes I’m more keenly aware of all the books that still need to be read, and
though I’m tempted to revisit old favorites, I mainly resist the impulse.
But a few months ago, out of curiosity, and because – sorry, here comes another plug- Harvard has just
published a new translation, I went back to a book I’d first encountered in college that really got under
my skin: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
The bookstore shelves are crowded with advice books these days. In fact, there’s a whole series
called “Letters to a Young fill-in-the-blank,” nice little handbooks by inspirational figures designed to
give guidance to aspiring young whatevers.
But Rilke is surely the granddaddy of the genre. In 1902, when he was only twenty-six but had already
developed a fan base, a nineteen-year old aspiring poet wrote to him asking for career advice. Rilke
responded, and a ten letter correspondence ensued.
Over a century later, these lovely exchanges speak profoundly to any twenty-first century readers
(young or old) who struggle with the creative life: solitude, distraction, self-reliance, doubt, and when to
listen to critics.
More than that, Rilke pivots to all sort of questions of living in the modern age- sex, love, religion, you
name it. The unspooling of these short missives is like eavesdropping on the blossoming of a friendship
and a mentorship.
Rilke’s admonitions are writer’s block tonic: notice and love the small, insignificant things that the world
overlooks; don’t strive so hard for answers but learn to love the questions; art is only a way of living.
Having decided to dedicate the time to re-reading the book (yes, it only took an hour, but every reading
hour is scarce), it was a great relief that, three decades later, Rilke’s letters spoke to me just as clearly
Around the time I first read them, I was also enamored of the artist M.C. Escher. My apartment was
plastered with his impossible, recursive images. Today, I can’t stand to look at an Escher drawing. They
leave me cold and wondering who the self was who once was moved to tears by them.
But I felt like I was re-reading Letters to a Young Poet with my twenty-year old eyes.
This new Mark Harman translation is wonderful in every way. Without seeming stilted, he’s restored a
sense of Rilke’s style, a really tricky accomplishment. The other main translation, by Stephen Mitchell,
leans a little too heavily on contemporary vernacular for my taste. (Think Wynona Ryder’s May Welland
in The Age of Innocence. She sounds more late twentieth-century than late nineteenth.) Harman
has managed to give the English language reader a seamless rendition while preserving a whiff of the
Finally, the package: A charming little hardcover that cries out to be given as a gift. Personally, I’ll be
working to replace all those Fountainhead’s and Atlas Shrugged’s being given to young graduates with
Letters to a Young Poet. Those smart college students who are enamored of Ayn Rand today will one
day see her as the M.C. Escher she is; but they will cherish their Rainer Maria Rilke’s.