Notes Nearing Ninety: Learning to Write Less


Best of 2018

We’re away until January 2, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2018. Enjoy your holiday!

Donald Hall, who died in June this year at the age of eighty-nine, was a prolific poet, essayist, and editor whose work has had an enormous impact on American letters. He was The Paris Review’s first poetry editor, and he served as the U.S. poet laureate. His Art of Poetry interview appeared in our Fall 1991 issue. Before his death, he compiled one final book of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, an excerpt from which appears below. 

Donald Hall, 1977.

When I was sixteen, I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down. Thirty years later, in New Hampshire with Jane, I made a living by freelance writing all day, so I read books only at night. Jane went to sleep quickly and didn’t mind the light on my side of the bed. I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and six huge volumes of Henry Adams’s letters. I read the late novels of Henry James over and over again. After Jane died, I kept reading books, at first only murderous or violent writers like Cormac McCarthy. Today I am forty years older than Jane ever got to be, and I realize I haven’t finished reading a book in a year.