routines and rituals

Here’s a thoughtful brief review by Siobhan Phillips of Daily Rituals, a book by Mason Currey based on his now-dormant blog Daily Routines. Phillips:

An artist’s schedule is important, Currey’s book reminds us, for its refusal to squeeze the most working minutes out of the artist’s waking hours. At a moment when we’re working longer than ever — and, as we dutifully lean in, trying to feel inspired and empowered by working more — it’s useful to recall that many of the greatest minds planned to fritter away parts of their days, that their routines protected creativity by filling the time around a more or less fixed window of possible, genuine intensity. Some strategies are more whimsical, like Patricia Highsmith’s habit of tending snails or Flannery O’Connor’s of raising birds, but most are very ordinary: Stephen King watching baseball, Jean Stafford gardening. There’s a good bit of smoking in this book, and a steady attention to drinking; there’s a lot of walking, too. (It seems to work even if you don’t, like Tchaikovsky, panic at any stroll shorter than two hours.) But one suspects that smoking and drinking and walking are so popular because they are the most universally accessible way to stave off the restlessness of the hours when one cannot — should not — be at a desk. They offer a way to forget how brief and chancy is the ability to create something new, to refine something beautiful, to think something true.

And about that ability, of course, schedules can say very little. That’s another point to be taken from this fascinating compendium. As if to recognize the mystery, Currey’s title evolved, when he turned his blog into this book, from Daily Routines to Daily Rituals. The amendment sneaks something spiritual back into his obsession with habit. Like the rites of religious devotion, the timetables of art surround an essence that is unrepeatable and unquantifiable. “It will appear like a calm existence,” Maira Kalman says of her schedule, but “the turmoil is invisible.” We fetishize that trackable calm because we cannot reproduce the inexplicable turmoil.

Lovely, and correct — and an understanding of creative labor pretty much impossible to reconcile with our society’s current obsession with “productivity.” There are many lessons to be learned from Currey’s book, but people who read Lifehacker might not be ready to hear them.

poetry on page and screen

Here’s a really thoughtful post by Siobhan Phillips on the highly fraught relationship between e-readers and verse. Phillips wants to argue that poetry’s concern with lineation and space ought to cause us to rethink what books and texts are. Poetry is not just a problem for e-reading, but a challenge to us to reconsider what we think is intrinsic, and what extrinsic, to a text, especially a literary text.I was thinking along similar lines when I was working on Auden’s Age of Anxiety, because Auden was so concerned about the appearance of his work on the page. He frequently quarreled with his American publisher, Random House, about the appearance of his books. “It isn’t that I don’t realise that, as such things go, the fount [font] is well designed,” he wrote to Bennett Cerf in 1944. “It’s a matter of principle. You would never think of using such a fount for, say, ‘The Embryology of the Elasmobranch Liver’, so why use it for poetry? I feel very strongly that ‘aesthetic’ books should not be put in a special class.” And then, in 1951, he told Publishers Weekly, “I have a violent prejudice against arty paper and printing which is too often considered fitting for unsalable prestige books, and by inverted snobbery I favor the shiny white paper and format of the textbook. Further, perhaps because I am near-sighted and hold the page nearer my nose than is normal, I have a strong preference for small type.” Nick Jenkins, a wonderful Auden scholar, has written: “In 1946, when he told Random House what he wanted for The Age of Anxiety, he loaned them his copy of A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Cross Fell, with Remarks on Mineral Veins, by Westgarth Forster, a book originally published in 1821 but that he seems to have owned in the third edition of 1883, and instructed them to copy its appearance. They did. A Treatise on a Section of the Strata had been set in Scotch, an extremely popular 19th century typeface, and the Kingsport Press in Tennessee used the Linotype version of Scotch for Auden’s book.” (We couldn’t use it for our edition, though.)

The photo above is from my copy of the first edition of the poem.