In my honest opinion... a journal
Occasional thoughts and reflections on one thing or another
It seemed like a good idea when it first occurred to me. I may have read of someone else who had, over years, kept a record of his reading. When I started that list in a bound notebook in 1985, there was no plan, and no expectation that it would carry on over decades. I realized at some point that it was useful to have that record, and once I’d recognized that usefulness, it became something I just did, a task like many that just got done, several times a month, conscientiously.
I was often reading about artists back then, curious about how they’d lived their lives, the choices they’d made, the problems they’d faced, the people whose lives they’d impacted and how. Some of those were cautionary tales (Picasso of course, Kahlo, Cheever), others inspiring. I tried to always read about people worth reading about, and still do, though biography, and artist biography in particular, is no longer quite as large a part of the reading menu I put together over a year’s time. Maybe I’ve read enough of those artists from whose lives and works I felt I might learn something. Maybe I’ve lived long enough myself that their examples, the models their lives represented, have less appeal.
Lately I’ve been reading more fiction than I did back in the 80s and 90s, though nonfiction is still the lion’s share of what I read. A lot of that these last years has been focused on politics and socio-political history, on contemporary culture and issues linked to social justice and the histories that have formed these ongoing challenges. In 2023, titles like Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America, a book that every citizen of this country should read; Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves; South to America by Imani Perrry; The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War by Jeff Sharlet; Larry Tye’s Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Joe McCarthy and Rachel Maddow’s Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, books that remind us how quickly we – the collective “we” – forget. Each of these is important and has bearing on our lives, both individual and societal.
Some folks focus on a single book at a time, reading it through before they go on to their next title. That’s never suited me. I almost always have four or five books going simultaneously. I usually have a recorded book that I listen to only when I’m alone in the car, driving to one errand or another, that works in fifteen- or twenty-minute snatches. All of the books named in the previous paragraph were audible.com “reads.” Currently I’m listening to Liz Cheney’s Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, as timely and as critical a read as any “current affairs” title. A politician who actually did the right thing when it most counted, how rare is that these days? Despite her flat delivery – she reads it herself, and let’s just say that Rachel Maddow has much more talent in that area – and despite the self-serving component of the narrative (geesh Liz, I get that your all about God and country, that you put aside self-interest for the sake of the Constitution!), her account of the pre- and post-January 6 horror show is compelling and a detail-by-detail reminder that we’re teetering on the edge of an extremely dangerous precipice right now.
Once or twice a year I read something in French, my second language, for the practice, given how infrequently I get to use it in everyday situations. Sometimes these reads take me through an entire year or longer (Hugo’s Les Misérables, in its entirety, was such a marathon). I started Hervé Le Tellier’s L’anomalie last summer and would have finished it by now but for the fact that I discovered that reading it in the book’s physical form while simultaneously listening to it on Audible worked beautifully for me. It reinforces the sound of the language as it lays it out visually, in literal, black-and-white form. It just means that I have to find time when I can close out the rest of the world with earbuds, the bound book in my lap. For that I have to be alone, in the right frame of mind, not likely to be interrupted.
Because I like to have something propped open in my dining table book stand for lunchtime reading opps, I’ll usually have a novel in progress there. I first read Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time that way, hands free to eat, and loved that story and Barry’s writing so much that within ten days of finishing it, I listened to the audible.com version, wonderfully read by the Irish actor Stephen Hogan. Barry’s book didn’t make last year’s Booker Prize shortlist, though it was on the long list. Another book I read in 2023, Paul Harding’s This Other Eden, was shortlisted for the Booker. It didn’t win; that honor went to Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, that we have on Kindle and will read in 2024 no doubt. Reading as much as I do, I pay attention to the awards, though I’d never place a bet.
My Kindles – I use two, one that pretty much resides on my nightstand, the other in my shoulder bag – make it possible to have a book at the ready just about all the time. The Kindle app on my iPhone increases that availability, though I find the iPhone screen too small to be really enjoyable for reading. We have a family sharing setup on Kindle, so whatever Linda purchases I can access, and vice versa. People either like reading eBooks or they don’t. Yes, a physical book is far more tactile, it’s there in your hands, it often has a smell. That said, for me it’s the words themselves, the printed words on the page or the digitized words on the screen of an eBook reader or tablet, that really matter. And if I can travel about, far and near, with an entire library tucked into the center pouch of my bag or in my waist pack, that’s a richness that I’m happy to take advantage of.
So back to my reading log. I record the start date and the date I finish a book, sometimes approximating it if I get distracted and an entry fails to be made on the “day of.” The title and author go in, obviously, and the manner in which I read it. My star ratings are entirely personal and have a lot to do with how well a book “clicked” in the moment, what my subjective reactions were, whether I’d re-read it. No star rating doesn’t mean a book wasn’t worth my time. More than likely, it was fine but didn’t resonate in a meaningful way when I happened to read it. In another season or year, under different circumstances and with a different purpose, it might. The advantages of keeping this log are several, but what’s key is that each time I review it, I’m reminded of each title, I see linkages in the threads of my reading over time, I see how this book informed that one, or how one title got me going on a particular author or subject area. The enrichment that reading represents is something I can see in the pages of my reading log.
At the end of a given year, there are always books to carry over, books started in that previous year, occasionally even in the year before that, with pages or chapters left to be read. In a way, it gives each new year a jump start, a boost of reading momentum that promises new discoveries, new tangents and detours, new satisfactions as books strengthen or challenge what I already know (or think I know), or unexpectedly open a door into some unknown subject area that I realize immediately is a rich, fertile lode . Though the annual count doesn’t have much value in itself, it lets me know that I stayed on task to the extent that my available time would allow. Some years – past years – were slim; if I read eight or ten books I felt I’d done well, given other demands on my time. In 2005, an extreme example, I read only three books. Fault of a major career re-adjustment, that was a self-denial I hope never to repeat.
These days, no longer preoccupied with gainful employment, I’m much less encumbered and can freely indulge my reading fixation. It’s important to me, to an extent that makes it difficult for me to understand folks who don’t read, or read very little, who don’t draw the rewards from reading that I do. It’s their choice, of course, and there are innumerable ways that people secure a sense of fulfillment in their lives. For me, a year in which I finished forty-six books leaves me feeling very fulfilled indeed.
A serendipitously well-timed road trip to the East Coast in October 2023 gave us the opportunity to see the exhibition Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. [ From the CAI’s website: Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth is co-organized by the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; Munchmuseet (MUNCH), Oslo, Norway; and the Museum Barberini, Potsdam, Germany, and curated by Jay A. Clarke, Rothman Family Curator, Art Institute of Chicago; Trine Otte Bak Nielsen, curator, Munchmuseet; and Jill Lloyd, independent curator. ]
In a July 27, 2023 review, the New York Times’s art critic Roberta Smith said that the show, “... takes a fresh approach by concentrating on Munch’s use of landscape — both as primary subject and as background — and the role of nature as the visual, emotional and philosophical wellspring for his work.” Being Norwegian, having lived most of his life along the Oslo fjord, it would be surprising if nature hadn’t figured significantly in Munch’s work, to one degree or another. It did, and to find that influence so well illuminated by this show’s curators was exciting and extremely satisfying. My lifelong admiration of Munch’s work was reaffirmed and renewed.
When artists get into conversations about their work, they inevitably and pretty much unfailingly pull in references to those artists whose work, whether historical or contemporary, influenced, inspired or otherwise moved them. The short list tends to include five or six that they often return to, that have an enduring attraction or appeal, that – disregarding whatever else might be happening in the art world – reassures them that at least in that personal or ideological connection, in some perhaps ambiguous alignment of aesthetic sensibility, all is right. For me, Munch is one of those.
His work settled on my radar when I was an undergraduate painting student and has stayed there firmly and unwaveringly. Its psychological resonance is probably the key factor in its appeal. Encountering his work, I'm inevitably pushed to look into my own psyche and all those big questions of life and death – who am I? why am I here? what really matters? what's the point, what's it all for? – restate themselves. There's also a powerful eroticism and a frank sexuality flavoring so much of his work, felt even in some of these landscapes, and of course in some of his portraits and self-portraits. It's sometimes at a simmer and other times at a boil, and the emotional tensions that pulse just below the surfaces of these paintings are as conflicted and complicated as he surely was. Munch's work stirs my interior self to a degree I've felt through very few other artists' works.
Karl Ove Knausgård got at something essential about Munch's work in the title of his 2017 assessment of the artist's significance for him, So Much Longing in So Little Space. Munch's life's work was a search after truth, and it's always there before our eyes, when we stand facing any work of Munch's. "I think the essential thing about truth is that it must be experienced," writes Knausgård, "and in order for it to be experienced, I think it has to appear nakedly, not woven into inherited notions. The driving force for all art is to find an expression that is true..." *
The first major show of Munch's work that I saw was Edvard Munch: Symbols and Images at the National Gallery of Art in DC in 1978. A dozen or so years later I made my first trip to Oslo and the collections of his work there, both in the National Gallery and in the Munch Museum. That trip was a bit of a pilgrimage, and I walked Oslo, seeking out addresses where Munch had lived and worked, and his grave in the city's heart. In the winter of 2018 I was able to see yet another Munch survey, Between the Clock and the Bed, at the Met Breuer in New York City, and a few months later saw it in its Oslo installation at the National Gallery there. Each time, the work is revelatory and moving. If things go according to plan I'll see Trembling Earth again this spring at the Munch Museet, when I'm back in Oslo. Dear Edvard, thank you for your work, for what it's meant to me. I look forward to seeing you again soon.
This has been on my mind for a while, can’t seem to let it go. Since it bears on who I am at the core, how I see my life and the worlds I live and work in, how I’d like to be understood, I’ll address it. Where wiser men might fear to tread...
A couple of months ago I was the guest presenter for a local civics organization, invited by this group to talk about my studio work first of all, and about my recently published memoir Dear Judy–A Love Story Rewritten by Alzheimer’s. The meeting took place in a member’s well-appointed and spacious home, so it felt comfortable and intimate. People were attentive and receptive and the hour or so passed quickly and successfully. I signed a few copies of the book and, when one of the members realized she didn’t have her checkbook nor sufficient cash, and I wasn’t taking credit cards, I instructed her to send me a check once she could.
Ten days later the payment came, along with a sincere and heartfelt reaction to the book that, by then, the individual had read. Her assessment was appreciative and supportive. And it ended with these lines:
I am sorry for the loss you both suffered, I am sorry that Alzheimer’s robbed you of yours & her golden years. I do hope you re-consider to find God. There is solice [sic] there. Sometimes we find Him there in or out of our deepest pain, tragedy, or even love. Sounds like He’s been with you all along. Best regards.
More recently, a longtime friend’s Christmas greetings included the announcement of a “spiritual gift” to us, the opportunity she was offering for us to be remembered in “900 special Masses” that would be celebrated beginning Christmas Eve. We appreciated the well-intentioned sentiment and understood where it was coming from. At the same time, it felt–as did the thoughts of my memoir’s reader–like a kind of microaggression. A disrespect for, or a dismissal of, my personal beliefs, intimations that it’s not too late for me, that they won’t give up on this poor, wayward and misguided soul.
As an “out” atheist, a non-theist, I fully realize that I’m part of a small percentage of the US population that openly professes non-belief in a higher being. All I ask is that it be respected. I’m not interested in being “saved.” At the ripe old age of 74, I’ve thought this all through as thoroughly as anyone can. I’ve read many philosophers, I’ve read Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic sages–my bookshelf of titles by and about Thomas Merton stretches a full twenty-two and a half inches. I’ve read Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, and too, I’ve read C. S. Lewis and Sohrab Ahmari, Anne Lamott and Wendell Berry. And the Christian Bible, of course (though many years ago, when I was young and most impressionable). I get it.
A couple of decades back a friend with whom I was discussing our shared non-belief remarked with a mischievous uplift at the corners of his eyes, “On the first day, man created God.” It was the first time I’d heard that notion expressed in that way, as simple and common sense-icle as it comes, and it’s stayed with me ever since. I wish I’d heard that when I was sixteen or seventeen, when I was beginning to think for myself and examine what I believed for myself, not what I’d been told I had to believe through thirteen years of Catholic parochial school education. Might have helped to accelerate a re-configuring of my consciousness that took longer than it needed to.
I do like its point about creation, especially. As an artist, creating has been my primary enterprise. Making things, bringing things into the world, incubating the optimism, positivity and imagination that makes creation possible. In my belief system, the power and value of art makes making it necessary, despite all kinds of obstacles, limitations, insecurities, and inadequacies that, as all artists understand, come with the territory. The impulse to create is entirely and exclusively human, and it’s the only way we can hope to better our lots in life. There’s no higher power who’ll do that job for us.
I'm relieved that the shortest day of the seasonal year is now behind us and we can look forward to having longer stretches of daylight as the new year progresses. A recent destabilizing experience – I was victimized by phone scammers and yes, I should have known better – that connected to my former presence on Facebook and related social media, prompted my terminating my Facebook/Meta, Messenger, and Threads presences, and I have no plan to return to those time-consuming addictions. In lieu of participating in those forums, I'm carrying on differently, with this new blog effective this first day of Kwanzaa 2023, also marked as Boxing Day in the UK, a bank holiday there (Kwanzaa should qualify as "bank holiday" worthy, yes?) In numerous other European countries, 26 December is celebrated as St. Stephen's Day, extending the holiday there. But of course, the stock market shut down yet one more day in the US of A? Too un-American. Marley & Scrooge would not approve.
My other blog, MJSQ@50, also begun recently within this website, will continue with occasional entries through 2024, marking the fiftieth year from that point in time when I started to get really serious about working with fabric and thread as artistic enterprise. A year from now I'll wrap it up, assuming it's served its function. IMHO, a journal, will carry on beyond that point, as long as I have the cognitive bandwidth to keep at it. Writing, like visual art making, is a practice and requires discipline, and having something to say. Increasingly it's where I've been wanting to put my creative energies. I hope for myself, and for you, reader, that the year ahead is generous with creative opportunity and motivation.