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Book Spine Poetry: Your Turn

A few months ago, I undertook a little experiment in book spine poetry, inspired by artist Nina Katchadourian and her Sorted Books project from a while back — and it seemed to strike a chord. Here are just a few of the book spine poems friends and readers have sent in since.

From Ruth Ann Harnisch:

I live in the future & here’s how it works:
Smart people
Simply imperfect
You are not so smart
I’d rather be in charge

The books:

From Kim Manley Ort:

A brief history of everything:
Shadow light
Ecological intelligence
As you think
Power vs. force

The books:

From Lonni Tanner:

Who do you love
My sister’s hand in mine
Family matters
Set this house in order
Salvage the bones

The books:

Catch up on previous book spine poems: The Spark of Love, The Future, Get Smarter, This Is New York, Music, A Working Theory of Love, and The Meaning of Life.

Ready to give it a try yourself? LibraryThing is running a competition, to be judged by Nina Katchadourian herself.


An Institution Committed to the Dulling of the Feelings: Susan Sontag on Marriage

“Marriage is based on the principle of inertia.”

“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all,” wrote Charles Darwin as he weighed the pros and cons of marriage before committing himself to the love of his life, with whom he had ten children.

Earlier this month, artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrated Susan Sontag’s meditations on love, culled from the author’s journals between 1964 and 1980 — a stirring blend of cynical disillusionment and romantic idealism. To get there, Sontag had passed through a turbulent youth of crashing against the walls of her sexual identity and eventually marrying Philip Rieff at the tender age of seventeen after a ten-day courtship. In the first installment of her published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), edited by Susan and Philip’s son David Rieff, a 23-year-old Sontag shares this grim antidote to Darwin’s optimistic take on spousal union as she grapples with the dissolution of her own marriage to Philip — a kind of painful separateness bespeaking the opposite of the limbic revision that happens between two souls connected in a healthy, loving relationship.

On August 12, 1956, she writes:

In marriage, every desire becomes a decision

She revisits the subject on September 4:

Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.  

Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them — that is, to end the marriage. So, after the first year, one stops ‘making up’ after quarrels — one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.

Then, in an entry dated November 18, 1956, Sontag puts down the outline for an intended essay on marriage:

A Project — Notes on Marriage

Marriage is based on the principle of inertia.  

Unloving proximity.  

Marriage is all private — no public — behavior.  

The glass wall that separates one couple from another.  

Friendship in marriage. The smooth skin of the other.  

[Protestant theologian Paul] Tillich: the marriage vow is idolatric (places one moment above all others, gives that moment [the] right to determine all the future ones). Monogamy, too. He spoke disparagingly of the “extreme monogamy” of the Jews.  

Rilke thought the only way to keep love in marriage was by perpetual acts of separation-return.

The leakage of talk in marriage.
(My marriage, anyway.)

Sontag and Philip separated shortly thereafter and permanently divorced in 1958. She never completed the “Notes on Marriage” essay, though many of the ideas teased out in Reborn were eventually fully explored in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays.

Also from Sontag’s diaries, her thoughts on censorship and aphorisms, and her synthesized advice on writing.


Bukowski on Going All The Way

“It’s the only good fight there is.”

Charles Bukowski endures as a beloved poet, a champion-voice of the 99% long before they were called the 99%, and a curious creature of paradox, full of romantic pessimism and luminous wisdom on the meaning of life.

From his 1975 novel Factotum (public library) comes one of my favorite passages in literature, which lives beautifully outside its immediate context as a timeless and powerful manifesto for living wholeheartedly and living the life of purpose:

If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.


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