I am currently in Missoula, attending a conference at the University of Montana. At a welcome reception last night (in which we were treated to, among other things, some delicious bison meatballs), one title kept cropping up in conversation: John Williams’s Stoner. Why has this 1965 novel of loneliness and small lives acquired such a cult following? As one professor put it, “It captures academia perfectly.” (And since it’s one of my favorites, I felt at home right away.) —Sadie O. Stein
Thank you to John Glassie and Writers No One Reads for highlighting Athanasius Kircher, the seventeeth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who gives a whole new definition to “Renaissance man”: author, inventor, curator, Mount Vesuvius climber. While most of his ideas—covering more than seven million words, in Latin—are dead wrong (universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains), his poetic “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions are masterpieces of expression. On a section of an Egyptian obelisk now in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva, Kircher wrote:
Supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises.
Unfortunately, he only wrote one book of fiction (1656’s Ecstatic Journey), and while most of his work is long forgotten, he was an influence on such writers and artists as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Marcel Duchamp. Not bad for someone who invented an instrument called the cat piano. —Justin Alvarez
Archipelago Books’s forthcoming edition of Antonio Tabucchi’s The Woman of Porto Pim is a pocket-size volume into which a mystical and incomplete landscape has been fit. Not incomplete because of any fault of the author (nor of the translator, Tim Parks, whose fiction appeared in our Winter issue); these are tales of exploration, elusive whales, unknown islands. The line between fact and fiction undulates erratically, leaving the reader without much of a compass. The narrator warns as much in the book’s introduction: “I won’t rule out my having altered it with the kind of additions and motives typical of one who believes he can draw out the sense of a life just by telling its story.” —Clare Fentress
In the back of the new collection of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (if you aren’t familiar with the strip, Johnson is also the author of the children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon), I discovered a “mash note” written by Dorothy Parker in lieu of a review of Barnaby. I couldn’t give a better recommendation than she does, declaring it “the most important contribution to American arts and letters in Lord knows how many years.” And then there’s her admonition to buy the book, which I second (it’s advice that applies equally well to all books): “I can only say Barnaby, the book, costs $2. If you have $5, save out three for the landlord and spend the remainder to feed you soul.” —Nicole Rudick
Recently, someone asked me who my favorite writers are. I listed a few, and we both went silent, realizing the same thing: there were a lot of Old White Men in there. Such people are looked on with some mistrust, at least in the corner of the world where I went to university. (I recently recommended Ragtime to a friend of mine who dances, and she sounded enthralled. “You can borrow it,” I said. “Thanks,” she said, “but I’m not reading any white men this year.”) I understand: they’ve had their turn. And yet, there will always be a place for Old White Men in my personal canon. (I realize this defense may seem unnecessary, given that their position in the world is still pretty comfortable.) My defense: T. S. Eliot reading “The Journey of the Magi”; it is simply a gift. —Olivia Walton
On the plane to Missoula, I read Richard Hugo. He captures the barren beauty of the place where he lived and worked for so many years perfectly.
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.