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by Jay Kenney
Literature excites me. That’s the only way to describe how I feel when I pick up the New York Times Book Review and see two new books on the front cover by Denis Johnson and Ha Jin, The Laughing Monsters and A Map of Betrayal. I read the reviews eagerly. I know these writers. A new book by such a writer fills me with wonder, joy, and anticipation. I wonder if I’ll want to read one or both. I read the reviews before I read any other section of the newspaper, standing up, drinking coffee.
Literature teaches me. The reviews by Joy Williams and Ben Macintyre remind me of the critic Walter Benjamin who came up with the concept of the “angel of history.” Williams ties the concept into her review of The Laughing Monsters. Where ordinary people “perceive merely a chain of events, the angel sees ‘one central catastrophe.’” I’m convinced by Williams’ review that I should read the new Denis Johnson novel. “The single catastrophe is what fuels the demands and mysteries of literature. The wreckage is what essential writers particularize, and Denis Johnson’s interests have always been in wreckage.” I’ll probably splurge and buy the hardback version at Tattered Cover.
Macintyre’s review makes me hedge my bets. The book is “uneven,” he says and some characters “veer close to stereotypes.” Maybe I’ll read it on my iPad, if only because Macintyre quotes Kim Philby, “the notorious British spy. . . . ‘To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged.'”
In the wreckage of my own life, literature was and is the single constant, no matter the crazy deprivation of childhood, the years on a distant cattle ranch in Wyoming, and the estranged years at Harvard. I learned Latin in high school and Greek in college and count those texts—by Homer, Vergil, Aristotle, Juvenal, Plato, and Catullus—as the bedrock of my education, the foundation onto which I could add the scaffolding of Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot and Yeats. Bits and orts of the original text persist somewhere in my body, lodged like some stubborn particle of plaque in my arteries, and from time to time rise to my brain without yet causing a cerebral hemorrhage. Currently the line in my head is from The Aeneid, the scene in Book I where Aeneas and his men, war-weary and battered, huddle on the Carthage shore seemingly too exhausted to press on to the promised homeland. “Forsan et haec olim iuvabit meminisse” (roughly: “perhaps someday in the future it will make us happy to remember these terrible times”). The thought applies equally to our childhoods, the many challenges of life, and the death of those we hold dear. That early plodding, when I could only read ten or thirty lines of The Odyssey at a time, taught me the patience to read the obscure or the difficult—John Clare and Hayden Carruth, James Joyce and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I am grateful both for what I’ve read and remembered and for the reminders everywhere of how much work goes into great or even merely good writing. As Gerald Manley Hopkins put it: “No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion / Shine.”
Finally, literature connects me to others. In Lighthouse, I’ve found a community of writers, other like-minded souls who understand that writing is a profoundly creative process that connects readers to writers, writers to readers, and all of us to one another, no matter the differences among us. I am eternally grateful for that.
Jay Kenney is the president of the Lighthouse Board of Directors, a longtime Lighthouse member. He is the author of Great Road Rides Denver and he is currently working on a memoir.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!