Sunday, January 24, 2021



‘Civil’ comes back in flower

Among its many other triumphs, Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem was a disarming, uplifting reminder that in our words lie powerful incubators of our deeds. One such word that her poem summoned for me was “civil.”

Some of the strongest buttresses of our democracy are bound up in that word. Civil discourse. Civil liberties. Civil society. Civil rights.

“Of or relating to citizens,” Merriam-Webster tells us about the word, presenting its first meaning. The Romans gave it to us in the form of civilis, deriving from civis, or citizen.

For the Romans, so strongly was the idea of civis connected to one’s identity that to utter Cicero’s pronouncement of Civis Romanus sum—“I am a Roman citizen”—was to immediately command respect. It’s no accident that some of this country’s foundations as a republic trace back to the ideas and ideals of Cicero. Even though not in Rome, Americans have been known to do as some of those ancient Romans did when it comes to government.

From civis to civilis is just a few short steps, as civilis speaks to public life and the civic order: both the rights and the duties of a citizenry. Walk with that concept a little farther and it’s not long before you arrive at the familiar, everyday meaning of civil: polite.

Civil discourse is how democracy works best because it means we listen, politely, before deciding a course of action. So to once again practice civility is more than a nice gesture, the kind thing to do. It’s also to be an American citizen. It’s our democratic way to both command respect, and show it.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

A comforting phrase pandemics can’t touch: ‘like a balm’

When this is over, we will emerge changed in many ways, and our language will not be immune. Perhaps “pre-pan” and “post-pan” will enter the lexicon. Or “pre-covid” and “post-covid.”

Already we have additions to Merriam-Webster, “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” among them. But the terms, though necessary, do little to console.

So let’s dig into that vast trove of English words and phrases and find something comforting we can use right now. One that sounds right to me is like a balm. “Balm?” you’re probably thinking. “Isn’t that something you rub on your lips?”

Well, yes. It’s any healing ointment, actually, and usually fragrant. Something soothing, in other words. It harks back to the Latin balsamum, which gave us the aromatic balsam.

Why balm works

The beauty of balm is that it’s linked to the physical, to touch. And reassuring touches are what we crave right now, as we don’t hug, huddle, gather or otherwise affirm one another’s physical presence. Solace is soothing, too, as it seeks to console us, but not in a physical sense.

Like a balm floated into my consciousness recently as I read one of the emails from Books & Books. Owner Mitchell Kaplan and his dedicated team have taken their physical spaces—the various Books & Books venues in Miami—and turned them into a devoted community of readers.

At the moment, those physical spaces are closed. But the messages that Books & Books is sending customers are like a balm. Here’s part of the one I received on Friday…

None of us knows what the future will bring, but we know we have a shared community that is planning to emerge from these dark times into a brighter day. Stay calm and read on. We will meet in that land that readers inhabit. It's a safe space, a life-giving space, a space unlike any other. We all know it and now take shelter there -- together. 

Beautiful, don’t you think?

And there are other things that act like a balm right now. One, for me, was reconnecting with a friend from so long ago it seems like yesterday. Another has been the emails and texts and phone calls (phone calls!) checking in with relatives and friends and colleagues.

The lovely watercolor you see here is by Renee Reese.  She shared it with her friend Andrea, a dear friend who shared it with me. The daffodils offer solace. The fact that my friend took the time to virtually share them with me is like a balm.

The philosopher Joseph Campbell encouraged us to follow our bliss. That may be too distant at this particular moment. But I hope you’re finding those special, small gestures and kindnesses right now that act like a balm.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Perhaps the oddest New Year’s resolution yet: give cursive a(nother) chance

If the story in the New York Times a few weeks ago is any indication, cursive writing might just be making a comeback, modest though it may be.

Contrary to what those who shun, eschew, lament, rail against, and run from cursive might think, the word does not derive from “curse.” But the running from is actually close. “Cursive” is from the Latin currere, to run. Letters in cursive writing flow, or run, together.

I think we should seriously consider a cursive revival. I say this even though my own cursive writing is cacographic—a fancy way of saying borderline illegible.

It’s not because I think that people will always have to sign their name the way we do now; I doubt that we will. It’s because cursive can be a potent tool when you're seeking transparency. 

For a good example, just read Lincoln.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” intoned President Abraham Lincoln at the memorial service for Union soldiers on November 19, 1863, “but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln was right on the second point but wrong on the first. We do, indeed, remember what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. In fact, the Gettysburg Address is set in stone on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

But is that really what he said that day?

The reporters who were there didn’t get it right. It’s not that Lincoln talked fast, but he talked short: a mere 270-odd words in under three minutes. Nobody was expecting that.

But while we may not know verbatim what Lincoln said, we do know what he wrote in his own hand at various times, and for different reasons. Five extant versions of the Gettysburg Address demonstrate Lincoln’s neat, highly legible cursive.

Therein lies my argument for why we should learn how to write cursive: so we will know how to read it.

In cursive courses truth

Source documents like Lincoln’s five versions of the Gettysburg Address allow us to see what Lincoln really wrote, and by extension, what he was thinking at the time. It’s the same with Jefferson and the draft of the Declaration of Independence that contains the 80-plus edits of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. 

And with JFK, whose determination to put Americans on the moon was in his mind well before his galvanzing, "We choose to go the moon" speech at Rice University in 1962. In gathering his thoughts for topics for his 1961 Inaugural Address, the first word Kennedy scrawled on the front of an envelope was "space."

So let’s resolve this year to keep cursive alive as a way to more fully partake of our country's past. The ability to literally read our history through the hands of some of those who made it means we better understand what they were seeking. 

That kind of truth without filter is a powerful tool to possess. Let's run with it.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The word is bereft: remembering Peter Mayer

In the space of just a few weeks this spring, the world of readers lost three of the great ones—Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, and Peter Mayer, a publisher unlike any other who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82. Peter's passing has left me feeling bereft. I had always considered him one of The Immortals.

If Peter’s name is unfamiliar, here’s my favorite way to introduce him: the first time I met Peter, I served him a slew of eighteenth-century insults…and he loved them.

At the time I had recently and somewhat improbably licensed an (abridged) edition of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary to George Gibson, then the owner of Walker Publishing. You need to meet Peter Mayer, George advised. He will have ideas for you.

I needed some. I was the editor of a small specialty-publishing imprint that was a sideline business to a larger company in Florida. I was tasked with publishing books that would not be sold anywhere else but would still sell.

Put another way: I was nobody in particular in the publishing world, and I was going to meet someone who was legendary.

At that point Peter was in the last chapter of his extraordinary publishing career, after his time as CEO of Penguin in Britain, and after he had published Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses despite the death threats. Peter was by then running Overlook Press out of his very-downtown Manhattan office, whose squeaky wood floors and lively hum signaled to visitors that this was no corporate bland land of publishing.

Peter's preposterous idea

Peter and I met at the London Book Fair, in 2003. I wanted to take him something for our first meeting, but what? A book was superfluous. As a line extension to the Johnson dictionary, we had created a set of magnets that each sported one of the more colorful insults from the book—slubberdegullion, fopdoodle, and the like. So I took Peter a tin of Samuel Johnson’s insults.

And that was how our friendship began. The consummately shrewd Peter immediately grasped what I was trying to do with this small imprint and, just as George promised, had an idea. He would reprise some of the more expensive, out-of-print books he had published in years past, and we would publish new versions of them as high-end, limited-edition books.

The only way I could successfully sell them, though, was if I sold them exclusively, not jointly with Overlook. For anyone else, this would have been a deal breaker. For Peter, it was barely a shrug. He would wait until I’d sold through my stock and then bring out a slightly different version for Overlook.

The word bubbling up in the head of any publisher reading this is most likely: preposterous. Who does this? Who sits on inventory until somebody else sells through their stock?

The word is generosity

I never did fully understand why Peter was so uncommonly generous to me. He was a savvy businessperson, evident in his commanding presence. He punctuated it with a voice that was unmistakable—a Cary-Grant-on-steroids voice, but with more of a New York accent, his home for most of his life (although he was born in England). It was a voice that spoke of keen intelligence, to say nothing of experience.

Most of all, Peter really didn’t need this idea of his for his own imprint.

But he was of his own era and mind, a book man who believed in the near-alchemistic powers of books. Even more—and more simply—Peter was kind.

He and I published some stunning books together: Jerusalem, The Saga of the Holy City; The Grimani Breviary; The Sarajevo Haggadah. I confess that when Peter proposed the last one to me, I didn’t know what a Haggadah was. Aren’t you Jewish? he said incredulously. Half-Lebanese, I assured him.

It was only the second time I knew Peter to be (momentarily) nonplussed. The first was when I told him, between tears, that I could never repay him for what he’d done for me.

The last book we published together was a collection of Redouté’s famous flower paintings. We produced it as an “unbound book,” an idea that I suggested and Peter enthusiastically endorsed. If anyone actually beams with pride anymore, I did when Peter said he liked the idea.

There was another, bigger project afterwards that we planned to collaborate on. But then the sideline-business imprint got sidelined. I wrote Peter to let him know. He immediately wrote me back, distraught. When he called me shortly after that, I could hear the concern in his voice. I was to come see him anyway, when I came to New York.

I never got that chance. But Peter had given me a much larger chance—the opportunity to do, at least for a short time, the work I loved best.

I was a small, insignificant speck in a world where he was a giant. There was really no reason for him to help me the way he did. But that was the way Peter Mayer lived.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

When books become sanctuary

Two remarkable events for readers and word lovers occurred back to back just a few days ago—the National Book Awards dinner and the Miami Book Fair. The Book Awards’ elegant function was black tie. The Book Fair’s ebullient weekend street fair was awash in tank tops. Different as they were, both reminded me that in books, we find not just knowledge and ideas and the power to transport. Not only wisdom and solace. But also, sanctuary.

Sanctuary: from the Latin sanctus. A holy place, a sacred place. A place that offers asylum and immunity.

A refuge.

For those of us who feel whipsawed by the often dystopian (dystrumpian?) world we’ve inhabited this past year, both these events offered a reassurance that yes, things are not at all as they should be, but there are people who can give voice to this in ways that just might give hope to us.

Annie Proulx, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, railed against the “Kafkaesque time” we lived in. But she also said this:

“Somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing.”

The word of the weekend

Perhaps it was just the happenstance of the sessions I chose to attend at the Miami Book Fair (there are hundreds), but even so—the word of the weekend seemed to be empathy.

“What we lack is empathy for real people,” Chris Matthews told his audience. Norman Ornstein alluded to the need for it when he reminded his audience that true patriotism is “not negative nationalism.”

George Saunders, who also spoke of empathy, cautioned that “the enemy right now is despair.” To George Saunders belongs the prize-winning book, Lincoln in the Bardo. The term “bardo” draws on the Buddhist concept of a transitional state, which perhaps inspired this observation from the author: “I’m convinced our country is on the brink of a beautiful breakthrough.”

Please oh please, George, be right.

Joe Biden joined in…and Charles Dickens, too

To George Saunders also belonged the conversation with former Vice President Joe Biden. “You learn empathy,” the Vice President said, talking about his childhood. From his mother he learned this: “You’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.” And from Joe Biden, we in the audience learned this: “Silence is complicity.”

Book Fair audiences also got a behind-the-scenes look at the new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s based on Les Standiford’s book, which found a book-to-film champion in Mitchell Kaplan.  Mitchell is the impresario behind the 33-year-strong Miami Book Fair, along with Dr. Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College. He is also the owner of Books & Books, and now a film producer as well.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is its own backstory, of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol.  Lots of us at the fair “got pinned” with one of the big campaign-style buttons promoting the film. It featured a Dickens quote…but not the Tiny Tim one that would have been too easy.

Instead, it was in keeping with the E-word: 
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Or who offers sanctuary to mind and spirit.

In the root of “sanctuary” is also a verb, sancīre: to hallow. These two sacrosanct events for readers reminded me in the most uplifting of ways that one thing we can do is hallow our books.

But let’s give the last word to Annie Proulx, and her acceptance speech.
 “The happy ending still beckons,” she told us, “and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

For those of us who can’t say “Happy Father’s Day” today

Well, of course we can say it to someone we know. I can say it to Jeff and Mike and new-dad Thomas, and to plenty of other men who wear the mantle of fatherhood with their own kind of tenderness.

But for those of us whose own fathers are no longer with us, Father’s Day is one that reminds us of what the word bereft means. It’s been 11 years for me—since I could last extend that greeting, in person, to the man who was my father.

I consider myself lucky, though, that five years ago I was given the chance to write an essay about a meaningful object in my life for the book Holding Dear: The Value of the Real. I chose an object that was my father’s. Here is what I wrote:

The Reliquary Cap

It is a word I have long admired. Reliquary. There is a fullness to it, a smoothness, like water gliding, sliding, over stone. Just enough syllables to slow you for a moment, a split-second pause to reflect and remember. It is a word that helps you observe the memories of what it holds.

Ever since work on this book began, I have asked myself what, should someone ask, my object of reflection/attention/affection would be. A pencil, perhaps, because I still compose the first words on paper. A white stone from one of the outer beaches that my husband and I head to, Mecca-style, early of a Cape Cod morning nearly every summer. The books I’ve had the joy of working on.

But these are objects of the present, things that speak of what’s possible, what will still be here tomorrow (or so one prefers to think). I realize that my object hold no such possibility. Just memories. A reliquary.

It is the corduroy cap that my father wore most days to work. When he came home I would often take it from him and hang it on the three-pronged hook in the room just off the kitchen.

“Country Gentleman” is the label sewn inside. The gentleman part is right but the “country” is laughable. My father was a city boy, Boston-born and –bred, a product of Boston Latin and B.U., the immigrant kid who was perfectly at home walking the streets of the South End at three o’clock in the morning. He ended up in a small town in western New York where you never knew what kind of creature (a squirrel! a chipmunk!) might jump out at you at three o’clock in the afternoon.

He doted on his daughters and I doted right back. I adored him for all the reasons girls love their fathers. But I also admired him, especially because I worked for him.

My father wore two hats: head of the school of business at St. Bonaventure University, and owner of an accounting practice. I worked for him in the latter, starting in junior high. I learned how to prepare financial statements and tax returns from him. I also learned that you never talked about a client outside of the office and that a deadline really was.

In later years, as I wised up a little, I appreciated how extraordinarily smart my father was—far more conceptual and analytical (and shrewd) than I could ever be. Much more logical, and yet so empathetic.

We were close. After he’d retired from Bona’s but still had his practice, I took to calling him at the office every week, from my home office in Florida. We would just chat. It was usually a Tuesday when I called. Our own Tuesdays with Morrie.

When he died, he was 91 and still doing tax returns and what did it matter that I knew it was his time, I was crushed. I helped my mother close his office, and I didn’t mind going through the files but the shoes were just too painful. He kept a pair there that he could slide into when he took off his winter boots. Now they looked forlorn and vulnerable. Empty. I couldn’t bear to look at them and still don’t remember what we did with them.

But his cap was there at my parents’ house, hanging on the three-pronged hook, and I told my mother I wanted it. I’ll have it dry cleaned for you, she said. No, I replied. I want it just as it is.

Because if I buried my face in the lining of it, beyond the Country Gentleman label, I could smell wisdom and love.

My father’s cap now hangs on a single hook in my house, on the side of a bookcase I face when I’m sitting in the large green chair, composing with my pencil.

Can I fully articulate why this object is the one that is most meaningful to me? No. But that’s the beauty of reliquary. It’s a word that holds mystery.
It took me five years after my father’s death before I could write that. I still don’t feel that I’ve done him justice. But I know that I miss him, not just on Father’s Day but on most days. Maybe that’s how we truly honor our fathers.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Cuba, Obama, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Whatever gifts President Obama may be bringing to his hosts in Cuba this week, it’s pretty certain that he’s not giving them one of the handwritten copies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And yet, in a roundabout way, America has Cuba to thank for it.

Lincoln wrote five copies of the Gettysburg Address that we know of, and not all of them before the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. In fact, the last one that Lincoln wrote was a kind of do-over, in March 1864. A Colonel Alexander Bliss was collecting manuscripts for a facsimile volume of Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors and wanted the Gettysburg Address to be among them. But alas, the first version Lincoln sent was missing a signature and a heading, among other elements, so would he mind penning another?

The ever-patient president obliged (proceeds from the book were going to a charitable organization to help the Union soldiers). Not only did he sign it but dated it, as well. This one made the cut for Bliss’s book.

Bliss’s descendants sold Lincoln’s original at auction in New York City, in 1949. A former Ambassador to the United States purchased it. His name was Oscar B. Cintas, and he was a businessman from Havana, Cuba. 

When he died, he willed that the copy become the property of the people of the United States. The aptly named Bliss Copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address now resides in the Lincoln Room of the White House.