CBC RADIO STUDIO ONE BOOK CLUB: October 22, 2011

December 22, 2011

 

 

A WINDOW ON ADAM GOPNIK’S
WINTER: FIVE WINDOWS ON THE SEASON

In preparing the past couple of posts for this blog, I’ve experienced some of the pressure that professional writers who have to come up with their own basic topics and concepts for dealing with these topics, and who have deadlines to meet, must feel when deadlines are fast approaching and they have only the vaguest idea of what their next column, or chapter, or whatever will be about.  In preparing this post, in particular, I initially reacted to the pressure I felt by greatly rushing my writing.  At least the pressure on me wasn’t so great that I was unable to see, eventually, that what I had written was ill-conceived, then get away from my blog for a few days and, between buying some Christmas presents and sending out a few more resumes, do more thinking about what I would write.  Actually, I had to go through that entire process a couple of times, before I came up with just a sound concept (in my present opinion, anyway) for this post about Adam Gopnik’s appearance in late October at the CBC Studio One Book Club, and his related Massey Lectures book.

There was an upside to my ordeal: it helped me come up with my concept for this post.  Going through that process myself, and then coming across comments made by Gopnik about the circumstances under which he prepared his Massey Lectures, made me much more sympathetic to the pressure he must have been experiencing.  I would suggest that such pressure largely accounts for some of the serious weaknesses in his Massey Lectures book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season.  However, I should emphasize that, despite these weaknesses, I generally greatly enjoyed the presentation he gave, based on the book, at the Book Club session that I attended prior to reading the book. 

For those readers not familiar with the Massey Lectures, I’ll provide a basic run-down.  Each year, a Canadian, or someone with views that have been deemed to be of interest to Canadians, is selected by members of the Massey Lectures selection committee to prepare a set of lectures that he or she then presents live in five cities across Canada, one lecture per city.  The lectures also are tape-recorded and aired on CBC radio.  In addition, the essays are published collectively as a book–which, at least in recent years, has been published prior to the presentation of the lectures.  Traditionally, because Massey College, where the lectures originated, is part of the University of Toronto, those selected to present the Massey Lectures were invariably academics.  However, in recent years, the lecturers have included prominent “public intellectuals” (thinkers not directly affiliated with academe) such as Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland–and now Adam Gopnik.  Regarding remuneration, according to a National Post article published this year (October 7), those selected to present the lectures currently are paid a flat fee of $75,000 (plus, I would assume, travel expenses).

I’d previously read several of the Massey Lectures books (some were required reading in some of my university courses), although I’d never attended any of the lectures–or, for that matter, listened to them on radio.  This year, however, because Adam Gopnik–best known as a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker magazine–was the lecturer, I had been seriously considering attending his lecture that was going to take place at Vancouver’s Chan Centre.  That was until I found out that, in conjunction with giving the Vancouver lecture, he would be the October guest at the CBC Radio Studio One Book Club.  Despite being disappointed by Sarah Salway’s apparent lack of interest in the use of the ‘experimental’ forms she employed in her fiction in certain academic writing, I’d enjoyed attending the Book Club session in August, and thought it would be more interesting to hear Adam Gopnik speak in this venue than to attend the lecture.  (Also, attendance at the Book Club session was free of charge, and attendance at the lecture was a minimum of $30. The book costs less than that.)

It’s largely because I have a personal connection, of sorts, with Adam Gopnik that I was so interested in seeing him when he was here in Vancouver. (As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not usually a fan of author’s readings–or lectures.)  He and I were undergraduates at McGill University in Montreal during the same period.  (I graduated in 1979 and he graduated in 1980.)  Although, so far as I can recall, we never met at McGill (we may have, since we took classes in the same building), I did get to know his father when I was studying there.  His father, Irwin Gopnik, was then a professor of English at the university, and I took one of his classes.  I was majoring in Communications; however, at McGill at that time, Communications was one of three ‘streams’ within the English Department (the others were English Literature and Theatre), and even Communications students doing Honours degrees were required to take Professor Gopnik’s course concerning methods of literary criticism.  It was a course I didn’t want to take, but I did learn a few things from it (about which I shall say more below).  I recall Professor Gopnik mentioning in class he had a son majoring in Art History who was a talented writer (Adam Gopnik was then writing for the McGill Daily) and, when I subsequently came across Adam Gopnik’s essays in The New Yorker, I realized I knew his father–and that his father hadn’t been exaggerating.

 

THE BOOK CLUB SESSION

I’ll now provide a brief summary of the Book Club session.  (I’ll be elaborating on certain points I’ve made here when I discuss Gopnik’s book, below.)  The basic framework of this session was the same as that of the session I had attended back in August.  The CBC radio host, Sheryl Mackay, was again one of the hosts.  Her co-host, filling essentially the role filled by William Gibson at the last session, was Paolo Pietropaolo, a local journalist and broadcaster, who has won a Peabody award for his radio broadcasts, and whose background equipped him to converse with Gopnik as a professional peer–although, for the most part, this session was more of a lecture by Gopnik than a conversation. 

When I first caught sight of Gopnik, making his way from the back of the Studio to the stage, I observed that he resembled his father in terms of his relatively small stature.  Other than that, there didn’t seem to be much of a resemblance. That was until he started speaking, and I heard a voice that was very much like his father’s voice, with the same New York accent.  (The strength of his accent was a little surprising, since he lived in Montreal beginning in his early adolescence and up to when he graduated from McGill; however, that was about thirty years ago.)

After providing the introductions, to kick off the session, Mackay made the point that we in Vancouver get relatively little snow, and that any snow we do get usually melts in a day or two.  Presumably, Mackay had taken exception to something that Gopnik had said about snow in his Massey Lectures book, but I then didn’t know what.  Gopnik quickly moved on to another subject without responding to her point, which seemed odd.  I concluded then that it was because it wasn’t a good point (although, after reading the book, I realize it was a very good point).  After that minor rebuff, through the rest of the session right up to the very end when she thanked the participants, Mackay uttered scarcely a word.  (She did laugh several times at Gopnik’s amusing stories, along with the rest of us.)  I suspected then that Mackay was being overly sensitive.  Or maybe she hadn’t read the book.  But now I think otherwise.  (Sorry about that Sheryl.)  It was up to Paolo to provide any future semblance of conversation with Gopnik, occasionally interjecting a comment or question. 

Although Gopnik essentially lectured, in a setting that wasn’t designed for a lecture, he could be forgiven (at least by me), because he was in the middle of a lecture tour (the Vancouver Massey Lecture was scheduled for the following evening)–and because he was such an engaging, witty, and informative speaker.

For his ‘talk’ (not exactly a lecture, but something close to it) at the Book Club session, Gopnik pasted together key arguments and excerpts from his Massey Lecture book–although I didn’t yet know that all of his material was included in the book.  He initially talked about his first winter in Montreal as a young teenager, and about the wonderful Christmas window display at Ogilvy’s department store in Montreal, that I’d gazed at myself.  He went on at some length about the common misconception that all snow flakes are different, and why we have that misconception, and how it was eventually cleared up.  (Until Gopnik’s ‘talk’, I still thought all snowflakes were different.)  He also discussed ice-hockey, introducing the subject by mentioning that he was a big hockey fan (and fan of other spectator sports).  I thought back to the Montreal Canadians winning the Stanley Cup when I lived in Montreal, and the jubilant parade along St. Catherine’s street that I attended.  Adam Gopnik probably was there, too.  There also was all that information near the beginning of his ‘talk’ about the development of central heating in Britain, which he seemed to be trying to argue was related to a particular view of winter.  And there was something about the 18th Century British poet, William Cowper (pronounced ‘Cooper’, according to Gopnik) being the first writer to conceive of winter in ‘romantic’ terms.  Although I had some questions by the end of the session, and there was a short question period,  I kept my questions to myself.  Gopnik was a little intimidating, because of all of the literary and historical erudition he packed into his ‘talk’–but he was also very witty.  There were several occasions during his ‘talk’ when everyone in the audience, and even Sheryl Mackay up on the stage, were laughing loudly.  In general, Gopnik’s ‘talk’ was a great hit.  I looked forward to reading the book.

 

THE BOOK

The false notion running through the book that all of Canada is blanked with snow through the winter isn’t the worst part of the book, although it is bound to jar many Canadians who don’t live in the Far North of this country–especially this year.  (According to national weather forecasts of the past few days, the majority of Canadians will not be having a white Christmas this year.)  The worst part, in my estimation, is a tossup between the weak central theme that Gopnik sets up in the first of the five sections of the book (or the first of the five lectures) and his virtual abandonment of this theme as the book progresses, leaving the rest of the book with no real theme at all, other than “various things associated in winter”. 

My guess is that Gopnik put a lot of time and effort (relatively speaking, anyway) into that first section, which is the longest and most densely-packed with references of the sections, then realized there were some serious problems, and tried to cover up the problems in that first section as best he could without doing a complete rewrite.  Then we went on to write the remaining four sections, virtually disregarding the first section.  I suspect he was aware that, presented only in a lecture format, as five discreet lectures, it wouldn’t have mattered too much if the material he wrote wasn’t cohesive.  However, this does matter when that same material is presented in book form.

That first section, titled “Romantic Winter,” begins well enough, with a personal recollection that Gopnik included in his Book Club ‘talk’, of his experience of his first snowstorm in Montreal, looking out a window of his family’s apartment and surveying the scene outside.  Gopnik definitely has a way with words, and the writing here is quite lovely (as it is in many other parts of the book, despite the book’s flaws).  Then Gopnik introduces the point he made in his talk, that a taste for winter depends upon having a well-heated abode to retreat to. Oddly, this seemed much more plausible when Gopnik was there in person making this point: reading a book, one can pause and allow one’s mind to consider other possibilities.  (For example, what would traditional Inuit people make of this point?)  But, it was too early on in the book for me to be too critical–and I had enjoyed Gopnik’s talk at the Book Club very much. 

The first time I suspected Gopnik might be in real trouble was still in the first section, when I read his full argument, an abbreviated version of which he had presented in his ‘talk’, concerning the relation of home heating and a poem by William Cowper.  Gopik contends in the book that Cowper’s poem, “The Winter Evening,” is “the first unambiguous declaration of the winter picturesque, winter as all the more lovely because it is so entirely exterior” (p. 12).  Whenever I’m told that something is the ‘first’, or the ‘best’ (or the ‘last’, or the ‘worst’), I cringe.  How can we possibly know that?  Also, although there is no doubt that there were improvements in home heating in Britain in general during this period, how do we know what the heating situation was in the Cowper home, in particular?  And if it was, as Gopnik assumes, warm and cozy, how can we possibly know that the heating in Cowper’s home caused him to write a poem in which winter is portrayed as being quite delightful?

It crossed my mind when I was reading Gopnik’s discussion of Cowper, and of the history of radiators and coal furnaces, that this was something that an old professor of English Literature might write, and not the Adam Gopnik I knew, of The New Yorker.  I thought back to his father, Professor Irwin Gopnik, and even briefly considered that he may have had a hand in writing this section.  But I very quickly abandoned this idea, since this was exactly the kind of thing that Professor Gopnik taught us not to do when critiquing literature: in general terms, don’t assume that historical circumstances caused writing to be the way it is.  If Adam Gopnik had used that old-style approach to critique Cowper’s poem, what did that say about his relationship with his father–even if Adam Gopnik had majored in Art History and not English?

Following his discussion of Cowper and home heating, Adam Gopnik lays out an overview for the book (or series of lectures), informing readers that there will be five sections (or lectures) thematically related by, basically speaking, the idea of looking out at winter from inside the warm and cozy contemporary world, through various ‘windows’.  But then he seems to backtrack, suggesting that this isn’t really the theme of the various sections (or lectures).  Gopnik is a rather vague here, and I suspect it’s largely because, at least by the time he was working on the final draft of the book, he realized there was a problem with this theme. Since it may be hard to believe that Gopnik’s writing is not always completely clear, following is a relatively lengthy quotation from this section:

“These are five windows among many more that we could open on the history of the winter mind.  Yet, though these chapters will not be hostage to a reductive thesis, they will hum, I hope, a recurrent theme.  That theme is simply defined.  Winter’s persona changes with our perception of safety from it–the glass of the window, as I sensed in that November snowstorm, is the lens through which modern winter is always seen.  The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure, indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.” (p. 4)

Despite the vagueness, I still had some hope for this theme, until I read subsequent sections of the book, including a section about polar exploration, and another about ice-skating and hockey,  that weren’t about ways of looking at winter, parallel to the Romantic view of winter discussed in the first section, but, rather, were just about activities associated with winter.  I kept looking for a connection between the various sections of the book, or lectures, but it wasn’t there–other than the fact that there was lots and lots of snow, everywhere one looked.

As my initial, self-imposed, deadline for this post–December 15th–approached, I started writing a post that was merely critical of Adam Gopnik.  Not only was I critical of his Massey Lectures book but, also, I started rereading some of his New Yorker essays I had enjoyed in the past, looking for their flaws.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my first couple of efforts were, as I finally realized, extremely ill-conceived.  But I stuck with the basic idea of a harsh critique for the longest time.  Eventually, as I persevered in trying to dig up more dirt on Adam Gopnik, I came across an interview that Gopnik had done for the National Post, published shortly before Gopnik set out on his cross-Canada lecture tour.  (The interview is part of the article to which I referred earlier, published on October 7.)  My opinion of Adam Gopnik–although not of his Massey Lectures book–significantly changed.

In explaining how he first came up with the basic theme and five-part structure for the lectures, Gopnik starts by mentioning how he first learned he was selected to present this year’s Massey Lectures.  According to Gopnik, he was waiting for a bus in New York, checking his email on his new, first, iPhone, when he opened an email from a member of the Massey Lectures selection committee, informing him he’d been selected to present the 2011 Lectures.  He had not been required to come up in advance with a basic theme and approach, since he goes on to explain that he came up with his basic theme and the five-part structure during his twenty-minute bus ride home.

No human being, not even an acclaimed New Yorker writer, can come up with a good basic idea, and good overall structure, for an entire book that fast.  What I would suggest happened here was that, when Gopnik was informed he was selected, he had other pressing commitments, and probably simply could not afford–or at least then believed he could not afford–to devote much more than twenty minutes to the basic conceptualization of his Massey Lectures.  Besides his job at The New Yorker, he already was committed to write a book about food, the scheduled publication date for which was around the same time as that for the Massey Lectures book.  And he has a couple of young kids, who probably keep him busy.  And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t prepared to entirely give up watching hockey games and other sporting events until those books were written.  And there was that new iPhone he still needed to figure out. (There can be a lot of figuring out involved with these new gadgets, as I know from figuring out my iPad.)  If one has ever tried to write while experiencing similar pressure, of even a signicantly lesser magnitude, one would realize that Gopnik came up with his basic theme and structure so very quickly due to sheer panic.  Once he had started writing his Massey Lectures book, he couldn’t turn back.

 

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

I won’t be buying Adam Gopnik’s book based on his Massey Lectures for anyone this Christmas–although, if I should happen to need an entertaining topic for dinner conversation at a holiday gathering, I might try retelling his story from the book (and his talk at the Book Club) about the snowflakes.  Or perhaps, if I’ve had a few drinks, I’ll start to reminisce about all that snow in Montreal–then I’ll look out the window at the pelting rain, and remember I’m in Vancouver and not Montreal.

Adam’s other new book, The Table Comes First, that he was writing at the same time that he was working on his Massey Lectures (in addition to writing essays for The New Yorker, and so on), seems more interesting. (I’ve read the preview on Google Books.)  I can think of a few people who would probably enjoy getting a copy for Christmas.

Reading Adam Gopnik’s Massey Lectures book, after thoroughly enjoying so many of his essays in The New Yorker, has made me think that, now that it has opened up its pool of potential lecturers to include not only academics but also public intellectuals like Gopnik, the Massey Lectures selection committee may need to reconsider how it selects its lecturers.  Unlike tenured professors who get paid pretty much whatever they do–or don’t do–most public intellectuals can’t drop everything else they’re doing to prepare the Massey Lectures.  Maybe the selection committee should solicit proposals from potential lecturers, instead of calling, or emailing, people out of the blue and making them an offer they can’t refuse.  ($75,000 is a lot of money–although not enough that someone with a family to support would forgo other income opportunities.)  Potential lecturers should be able to provide at least a sound basic concept before being offered the job.

Last year, Douglas Coupland, best known as the author of Generation X, and a visual artist, and filmmaker, and author of many other books, presented the Massey Lectures.  I haven’t yet got around to reading Coupland’s Massey Lectures book, although it seems like something I would enjoy.  After reading Gopnik’s book, and giving some thought to public intellectuals presenting the Massey Lectures, I’ve become more interested in reading Coupland’s effort.  That may be the subject of my next post–assuming I can come up with something worthwhile to say on the subject without having to spend weeks, or months, mulling it over. 

 

 

 

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