Writing a column is a strange, many-sided enterprise. It is, first and foremost, a privilege: to be able to reach readers—most of whom you’ve never met and never will but also family members, lifelong friends and recent acquaintances, writers you’ve worked with, your faithful editor, and more—on “a regular basis,” as I myself have read so many columnists coming in so many flavors over a lifetime, going all the way back to the sportswriter for the Pomona Progress-Bulletin whose column in the second half of the 1950s was the first I devoured regularly.
On any given day I am thinking about my next column for this publication (the column appears every other week), by which I mean that never does a day pass in which I don’t think at all about the “current” column or some possible subject down the road or both—and often, in the interval between columns, I change my mind two or three times about what the next subject will be.
Late last week, for instance, I received a copy of Hospitality, Volume I, edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf and translated by E. S. Burt, a volume in the ongoing series “The Seminars of Jacques Derrida” from University of Chicago Press. Simply by mentioning this, of course, I will lose some readers, who have come to so loathe any mention of Derrida and “deconstruction” that they avoid the subject like the plague; others are simply overcome by an oppressive weariness. I thought for a couple of days about writing a column in which I would revisit a particular time (from the early 1970s to the early 1980s) when I was in and out of various grad programs and then teaching as an adjunct for three years. Those hours spent at the Xerox machine photocopying book excerpts in translation or essays by or about this intellectual magus and the movement over which he was said to preside! And the first sentence of Hospitality translated here brings the atmosphere of that time back with a rush: “Even before beginning, I will reread with you, by way of an epigraph, a long and famous passage from Kant.” But I decided, for the moment at least, that too many readers of this column would simply groan or swear in irritation and stop reading.
Then I was tempted to write a column on several recent books pertaining to “sound,” a subject close to my heart (as regular readers will recall) and one that is blessedly getting a “plethora” of attention (to quote from the film Three Amigos), though sometimes skewed by the ideological madness that’s such a feature of our time. I will do this, but I decided I should wait a bit before returning to the subject here. (Still, I have to mention a new book that’s tangentially related: Ear Training: Literary Essays, by William H. Pritchard, from Paul Dry Books; the title of the book is taken from the superb introduction by Pritchard.)
Another possibility was writing about Garrett M. Graff’s just-published UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There, which could be paired with Matthew Bowman’s The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America. That idea, which has a strong appeal for me, will be added to the “possibles” list in the column sector of my brain. Writing about these books would, among other things, give me a chance to say a bit about my father-in-law’s sighting of UFOs. And this makes me think of a different but adjacent conjunction of subjects I’ve taken up in the past in various settings and will certainly return to: the possibilities for “settling” Mars, the search for exoplanets, and more.
Just now I turned from the laptop resting on the Dodgers blanket covering my legs in the recliner (my workspace) and looked out our front window. A large leaf from the sycamore tree in our dear neighbor Sue’s yard next door was fluttering slowly down against the now-bare branches of our maple tree, which doesn’t have many seasons left in its life. One lovely bit of time, surprisingly rich, bittersweet, “ephemeral,” but very much the stuff of which our lives are mysteriously composed. For a moment, I felt an immense gratitude.
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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