A Week in Culture: Peter Terzian, Writer


The Culture Diaries


6:46 A.M. Sit on the couch with Toby, our dog, to read Ulysses. I’ve been doing this in hour-long sessions, a few mornings each week, since spring. Today I begin chapter 9, otherwise known as “Scylla and Charybdis.” This is the one where Stephen Dedalus gives a disquisition on Shakespeare in the reading room of Dublin’s National Library. (Meanwhile, Leopold Bloom, the novel’s main character, is in the National Museum nearby, checking out the bottoms of the classical statues to see if they have anuses.) I am, as a friend calls it, “geeking out” on Ulysses. My method is: read each chapter once through with Ulysses Annotated, Don Gifford’s exhaustive book of explanatory notes, at my elbow; read the corresponding sections in a couple of critical texts that discuss the book chapter by chapter; go back and read the chapter a second time, neat. But that’s not the end of the geekery! Before I begin each new section, I take a look at Ian Gunn and Clive Hart’s incredibly fun James Joyce’s Dublin, which maps the routes Bloom and Dedalus walk over the course of their shared June 16th and reprints archival photos of the Irish capital in the early twentieth century. For “Scylla and Charybdis,” there’s a great picture of the interior of the National Library, with men wearing many-layered, tightly buttoned suits, sitting at long wooden tables similar to the ones in the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room. No one’s playing Minesweeper on his laptop, though; these Dubliners are reading books—books, imagine!—propped on very civilized-looking reading stands.

This chapter is pretty note-heavy. Over the next hour, I get through only sixty lines of text, but according to the annotations, these lines contain allusions to Hamlet, Goethe, Milton, Blake, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, Marie Corelli, A.E., an obscure play by Synge, and Irish political history. I also learn two new Shakespearean words: coranto, “a running dance,” and sinkapace, “a dance with five steps.” I should say that I’m technically rereading Ulysses, but my memory of the book from the first time around, in college, twenty-three years ago, is almost nil. I’m sure I stumbled over every other sentence then. Not this time!

7:51 A.M. Toby and I hear Caleb waking up in the bedroom; Toby slides off the couch, corantoes off.

7:54 A.M. Joyce’s allusion to the phrase “strangers in the house,” an Irish epithet for British invaders, causes the Elvis Costello songThere’s a Stranger in the House” to briefly play in my head.

8:03 A.M. Breakfast. Caleb and I are slowly reading through The Oxford Book of English Verse, aloud, poem by poem. The idea is to start the day with beauty and art, while bad news waits on the doorstep, temporarily contained in a blue plastic bag. But sometimes, against our better judgment, we find the temptation to read the newspaper overwhelming. Today we decide to do both—the paper while we eat cereal, a poem after. I read “Political Cauldron Stirred by Old Video of Candidate,” about Christine O’Donnell’s dabbling in witchcraft, and immediately regret our decision.

8:25 A.M. Caleb reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, then I read it. It’s beautiful. The message is, Caleb says, “You love me more because I’m olden.” We figure out that Shakespeare probably wrote it when he was in his late thirties—dismaying that he thought himself in his twilight then. I’ve read a lot of the plays but very few of the sonnets. I know this one, though, because Kate Jacobs, a Hoboken singer-songwriter I like, has adapted it and set it to music. Her version, “That Time of Year,” is enchanting—it’s done klezmer-style, with a horn, fiddle, and banjo.

9:02 A.M. Iron my clothes for work. I figure out that I can memorize Sonnet 73 in a week if I learn just two lines a day.

That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hang

I’ve been obsessed with the idea of memorization since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, an account of the British travel writer’s walk across Europe in the 1930s. Leigh Fermor passed the time by reciting the anthology’s worth of English poetry he had committed to memory as a schoolboy. Rote learning was not a priority of suburban public schools in the 1980s—we memorized the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, and that was it—and since reading Leigh Fermor’s book I’ve fantasized about making up for it in middle age, though without much success.

10:10 A.M. At work, read my Facebook news feed. My friend Sean Howe has changed his profile picture to the rooster on the cover of Pavement’s Watery, Domestic EP. Sean texted me Saturday evening to say he had an extra ticket for Pavement at the Williamsburg Waterfront, the first of five New York dates on its reunion tour—did I want to go? I immediately said yes, and then realized I didn’t want to after all, and sheepishly called him back Sunday morning to say I had changed my mind. A reason for my ambivalence occurred to me later: that seeing Pavement, a band I loved in the 1990s, might make me feel temporally displaced—as though, for one night only, I would revisit a musically exciting time in my life, and then the window would close up again, for good. The prospect of such a heady rush of nostalgia made me uneasy.

10:44 A.M. Sean e-mails a link to a review of the Pavement concert with the set list appended to the bottom. Maybe I was wrong—looking at this list, I think I would have been happy to hear these songs again.

12:32 P.M. Take advantage of my new MoMA membership by meeting my friend Kate Bolick for lunch at the trattoria-ish cafeteria on the second floor. Afterward we quickly walk through a small show about modern kitchen design. Some great poster art, including British wartime propaganda with a rat that “will eat your rations,” and TV monitors with kitchen-related vintage films. It’s too much to take in over a few minutes—I’ll have to come back.

6:18 P.M. On subway platform, begin new Alan Bennett story “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” in the London Review of Books.

6:50 P.M. Train pulls into the station near my house. It’s touch-and-go with this story; not sure I’ll end up finishing it.

7:45 P.M. Leaf through new issue of New York magazine while waiting for frittata to set on stovetop; wish that there were more photos of Andrew Garfield in Facebook movie article. I have a haircut scheduled for later in the week—could I pull off his flawlessly styled quiff?

9:31 P.M. Read draft of “Melville’s Secrets,” a lecture Caleb will deliver later in the week at Geneseo State College. He’s been asked to give the annual Harding Lecture, named after the late Walter Harding, a preeminent Thoreau scholar who taught at the school. The lecture is about “secret meaning” in Melville, specifically in Moby-Dick and Clarel, Melville’s little-read epic poem. Why do certain books, Caleb asks, make us feel that the author possesses esoteric knowledge he or she has encoded within the text? What might that hidden knowledge mean in Melville’s case? I haven’t read Moby-Dick in a long time, but I’m fully absorbed by Caleb’s paper; for one, there’s a lot of sperm in it.


Sometime before 6:52 A.M. Dream that I bought some stamps at the drugstore from a lady author who looked kind of like Lillian Hellman but whose name started with an M. She was tipsy and a little cranky, and the pharmacist was trying to ignore her drunken antics. The stamps had Lloyd Cole’s portrait on them.

7:28 A.M. Give Toby his breakfast and epilepsy medication—otherwise known in our house as “the Food and Drug Administration.” This morning he’s not having any of it. He coughs out the potassium bromide liquid and will only take his phenobarbital tablets smeared in peanut butter. And not from my indelicate fingers—on a plate, bien sûr.

7:50 A.M. Run with Toby around Prospect Park. “That time of year … that time of year … where … something something few do hang.”

9:45 A.M. On the subway, read a galley of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, my friend Claire Dederer’s first book. Claire wrote reviews for the Newsday books section when I was an editor there a few years back, and we became fast friends. She lives on an island near Seattle, so we’ve only met in person once, when she was on a visit to New York, but we still e-mail every so often about books and bands. I’ve always loved Claire’s reviews and essays; her writing voice, which is a lot like her conversational voice, is warm, confiding, and unflappable. But Poser, which tells the story of Claire’s attempt to become absolutely perfect at yoga—and, by extension, life—is knocking me out. It’s very funny about yoga culture and disarmingly honest about how complicated marriage and family life can be. I haven’t done yoga in years; Poser is making me want to try it again.

In the chapter I’m reading today, Claire writes about how yoga made the transition from East to West. She references Queen Lucia, a comic novel from 1920 by E. F. Benson, in which a swami arrives at a rural English village and teaches yoga to Lucia’s circle of cultural strivers. I momentarily think I might like to read one of the Lucia books, and then foresee failure: I recently began Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and gave it up midway, feeling drollery-resistant. I subsequently looked back on past attempts to read English comic novels—Decline and Fall, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Jeeves Does Something or Other—and sadly reflected that I must have some deficiency in the wit department.

1:08 P.M. Lunch at the Breslin with my friend John Siciliano, an editor at Penguin Books. John gives me a copy of Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary. I’m eager to read it, but I think I’ll have to wait until I’m through with Ulysses. Reading two benchmarks of world literature simultaneously seems like having a dinner of two entrees—tuna steak and grilled sea bass side by side on your plate. I’m going on vacation at the end of this week, and John asks me what I’ll take to read. I haven’t decided yet, but I think it will be shorter books. We agree that if you read three or four short books on vacation, you feel like you’ve accomplished more.

10:08 P.M. Watch a few short films by Jonas Mekas on my laptop. An editor at a magazine I write for has asked if I might be interested in doing a profile of the experimental filmmaker. I’m embarrassed by my unfamiliarity with his work. I dig around on Mekas’s extensive Web site and play a video of Susan Sontag talking with Bela Tarr about e-mail; a three-minute snippet of the Velvet Underground’s first public appearance with a frantic, dancing Edie Sedgwick; a clip of the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon singing “Loch Lomond,” accompanied by some Himalayan musicians; and a video of Mekas eating cheese and bread during a blackout while an Elton John song plays on the radio. The videos are sweet and charming, but I think I’m going to turn the assignment down. Mekas’s career seems long and varied, and I’m not sure I can do it justice without some past experience with his work.

10:33 P.M. Remember that I forgot to memorize today’s two lines of Sonnet 73. Try to cram them in.

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.

“Bare ruin’d quiers” is, of course, “bare ruined choirs,” one of those famous Shakespearean phrases you know even if you’ve never read the poem it comes from.


5:07 A.M. Can’t sleep; couch, dog, Ulysses. Get tripped up by a few knotty paragraphs that apparently have something to do with esoteric Christianity and theosophy—Stephen Dedalus’s philosophical cogitations. The chapters that take place inside Leopold Bloom’s head are a breeze compared to the ones that take place inside Stephen’s, like this one. Bloom is a kindly newspaper ad man in early middle age; Stephen is a difficult, depressive young intellectual. When I read Ulysses in college, I was nearly Stephen’s age; today I’m a few years older than Bloom. I have a vague memory of thinking that Bloom was a bit buffoonish. His troubled, sexless marriage; the loss of his son in infancy; the suicide of his elderly father—these are experiences a callow college student like the one I was can’t easily identify with. Bloom has all the qualities I’ve come to value: curiosity, optimism, good manners, empathy, even-handedness, an unwillingness to let grief and despair pull him under.

6:41 A.M. Read a Facebook post by my friend Bill Pearis about the awesomeness of last night’s Pavement show. Wish that I had gone.

6:44 A.M. Watch a clip of Pavement playing “Gold Soundz” on last night’s Colbert Report. On the other hand, I’ve heard this song about a thousand times.

7:04 A.M. Walk Toby in Prospect Park. “Upon those boughs … so drunk in the August sun … bare ruined choirs … because you’re empty, and I’m empty …”

5:54 P.M. About to leave work, receive a call from Caleb, sick the day before his lecture, feeling woozy and in need of comfort. Would I bring home “a cookie from that place … you know … a Sex and the City cookie”? That is, a “whoopie cookie” from the chokingly sweet but inevitable Magnolia Bakery near my office. Whenever I buy anything here, I invert the plastic bag so the logo is on the inside, so I don’t look all girly.

8:00 P.M. Attend a reading by my friend Giles Harvey at the Montauk Club, one of the most beautiful buildings in my Park Slope neighborhood. The reading is held in a long nut-brown paneled room lit by chandeliers and flickering candles, with tall partial stained-glass windows along one wall. Halfway through, a thunderstorm passes over; there are a few loud rumbles and flashes of lightning, but the rain is quick and light. Giles, one of three readers, steals the show with an excerpt from a terrifically funny and inspired story, his first to be published, written in the form of a vindictive book review. It’s his debut reading, but he reads like a seasoned performer.

11:30 P.M. In bed, realize I forgot to memorize two more lines of Shakespeare sonnet. Tomorrow I’ll have to do four.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Terzian’s culture diary.

Peter Terzian is the editor of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives and the writer of a blog called Earworms. He is an editor at Elle Decor.