Earlier this month, one of our closest friends sent me a lovely birthday card that included a gentle admonition: “John, you think about old age too much. Yes, we are older, but you can talk like that from eighty on.” I was duly chastened. And yet . . .
“A week isn’t a week anymore.” Wendy had been struck again by the way time seems to pass more quickly as we age. Yes, and a season isn’t a season anymore. We are into summer already, very close to the solstice.
My sense of this particular moment is inflected by the task of going through stacks of old magazines, newspaper articles, publishers’ catalogues, and more—most recently, a cache having to do with the “science and religion dialogue,” representing a span of more than a decade in which I regularly attended conferences on that subject (many of them sponsored by the Templeton Foundation) and read scores of related books. I don’t regret the time invested in that endeavor, and I’m particularly grateful for the friendships this “dialogue” fostered—and yet, it all seems so quaint now.
Adjacent to that cache I found a large stack of printed-out emails: editorial correspondence for Books & Culture from 1996 and 1997 (our first issue had appeared in September 1995). Here was Larry Woiwode (one of my favorite American novelists of the last fifty years), writing in 1996 in connection with a review he was doing for B&C: “I love Erdrich’s perseverance. She studied with Barth and thought, probably, that he was wrong; anyway, she did what she had to do, as any storyteller does, and that’s what I wanted to talk about, that’s the direction the review suddenly took: it’s in the air.” (Also, from the same email: “God alone has caused it to happen.”)
And here was a brief email from the sardonic Virginia Stem Owens: “John—it’s only them debauched NORTHERN Dutch Reformed who imbibe. A quote from p. 27: ‘Television was forbidden on account of the three B’s—beer commercials, bed scenes, and blasphemy.’ The influence of those Baptists, I suppose.”
Speaking of the Dutch Reformed, a number of whom were regular contributors to the magazine, I had asked Rich Mouw if he would review a book titled How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. He was happy to do so, but wondered if, having contributed a blurb, he was ruled out. I replied:
I don’t see a conflict. The only possible issue would be that in sending a book for review to someone who had blurbed it, you are selecting a reviewer who already is favorably disposed to the book. According to this school of thought, the perfect reviewer would come to each book with a blank slate. Of course that is absurd. We want you to review it because we think you are the best qualified to do so. And I don’t think you would put yourself in a bad light by taking it on, having already blurbed it. A review of course allows for a much more nuanced assessment.
It’s interesting to see the way different publications approach these questions. The NYTBR makes a fetish of supposed objectivity. On the other hand, the Washington Post Book World will often give a book about Israel, say, to a writer who has been critical of U.S. favoritism to Israel. And then there are the Brits. They like to send a novel to a reviewer whose wife has just left him for the novelist in question.
Happily, Rich took it on and wrote a splendid review, as usual.
Some of these emails made me cry (one from Susan Bergman, for instance, who died just a few years later, much too young). Some gave me the particular sadness that comes when you are reminded of a friendship that was once very close but somehow, without any clear break, faded away. Many were a delight to recall after all these years. All of them filled me with a sense of the mystery of time.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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