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A Place to Read

In this essay collection, Michael Cohen tells us about his surprise encounter with the remains of Frida Kahlo, about his father’s murder, and about his son’s close shave with death on the highway. His subjects can be as commonplace as golfing with close friends, amateur astronomy, birding, or learning to fly at the age of sixty. But he asks difficult questions about how we are grounded in space and time, how we are affected by our names, how a healthy person can turn into a hypochondriac, and how we might commune with the dead. And throughout he measures, compares and interprets his experiences through the lens of six decades of reading.

The tools of the writer’s trade fascinate him as do eateries in his small college town, male dress habits, American roads, and roadside shrines. He lives on the Blood River in Kentucky when he is not in the Tucson Mountains.

ISBN 9781922120922 (PB, 336pp);
152mm x 229mm
AUD $33 USD $24 NZD $36 GBP £18 EUR €22
ISBN 9781922120939 (eBook) AUD $17 USD $10 NZD $19 GBP £7.5 EUR €9

 

Reviews

When we call someone “bookish,” we’re usually thinking of the classic bookworm who encloses himself in a world separate from everyday life. I always think of that classic episode of “The Twilight Zone,” where Burgess Meredith wants nothing more out of life than the solitude he needs to read books in the library. (I’m sure you all remember the ironic ending.)

Michael Cohen is bookish in a different way. For him books are an extension of an active life, the means to connect his own environment and experiences to the world at large, the one we all live in. The need to connect and what we learn about the world and ourselves when we do is the theme of these fascinating explorations.

You might say that the “topic” of a Cohen essay doesn’t really matter all that much. It can be serious (capital punishment) or trivial (local restaurants). Cohen begins his essay “Men in Uniform” by describing his own attitude toward the clothing he wears. As a “typical male” he is largely indifferent. You might say at this point, “Who cares what this guy wears”? But that’s the whole point: the everyday decision is just the beginning of the inquiry. The stimulus is a book (something about ladies’ black dresses) which Cohen vividly recalls reading. And then we’re off, on a journey through the fascinating, surprising, often funny world of men’s clothing. As Cohen tells us. “one of the governing principles of male sartorial design is making inappropriate choices hard to blunder into.” Along the way we get all kinds of wonderful information: Tobacco tycoon P. J. Lorillard, imitating the Prince of Wales, brings the tuxedo to America. The men’s suit evolves from a display of the male body to concealment of it. The rise and fall (and rise and fall) of the double-breasted suit, etc. Finally we return to Michael Cohen and his clothing choices. But it’s not really about him any more. It never is, and that’s really the point.

Sometimes Cohen’s topics are obviously serious. His brilliant essay on capital punishment (“The Victims and the Furies”) couldn’t be more different from the usual “pro/con” essay. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you agree or disagree with Cohen’s position. (Why be coy? He’s against it.) Either way you will be dazzled by his fascinating arguments and the wide range of his references, from Orestes killing his mother in the Oresteia of Aeschylus to Michael Dukakis fumbling his answer to a question on CNN.

And sometimes we just get a little fun, as in his essay on the demographics of local restaurants and the pleasures of a round of his beloved game of golf.

We learn a lot about Michael Cohen from his essays. But we learn much more about the world we all live in. The final message of these informative and entertaining essays: Each of us is alone. But we’re all in this together.

– Richard Steiger, Amazon verified review

Michael Cohen’s essays on the reading life are a treat to read. Relaxed, personal, wide-ranging, they contain fascinating nuggets of information and lively assessments of hundreds of books, as well as a whole life’s worth of thoughtful rumination on time, love, travel, and family, as well as what it means to be, almost existentially, a reader.

– Christina Thompson, Editor, Harvard Review

Anyone who has pounded the pavement selling The Great Books of the Western World in 54 volumes and lived to tell gets my undying respect and should get yours. Michael Cohen is a book rat, not a book snob. For him, the pleasures of the book are tactile and auditory as well as psychological and philosophical. The essays in A Place to Read take on potential plate-lunch combinations in western Kentucky, the tuxedo as male uniform, the golf course as locus of friendship and humor, and Baptist theological responses to Day of the Dead practices in Michoacán, in addition to more strictly literary subjects.

– Ann Neelon, editor of New Madrid

I don’t know if Michael Cohen drinks Dos Equis, but if and when he does, he may qualify as one of the most interesting men in the world. Cohen is a retired English professor, amateur astronomer, small plane pilot, long time birder, golfer, world traveler, and author. He has dealt with family tragedy and daunting health issues, spent seven months leisurely reading three-thousand pages of French novelist Marcel Proust, and dined with two future Apollo astronauts. But above all he is a reader and lover of books, and therein lies the central theme of A Place to Read: Life and Books. Cohen is a keen observer who writes clearly and candidly about his experiences and at the same time he is an avid reader who does not shy away from the deeper thoughts of authors such as essayist Michel de Montaigne or E. B. White. His passion for books is evident throughout this fascinating collection of essays and I heartily recommend Cohen’s book to any self-confessed bibliophile. After reading A Place to Read, I am reminded of a passage in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life: “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”

– Bob Vickers, Amazon verified review

There are books about books and even books about readers, but there are few books about reading. Michael Cohen has filled that void wonderfully, with a book of essays that in one way or another, tell about a life of reading.

Cohen’s life as essayist, professor, and keen observer of ordinary things and people are the substance of these essays, but in one way or another, each brings the reader back to the special joys of a life of loving books and reading. Each in its own way comments on the human situation, filtered through a personal optic that is at once refined and erudite. And yet, there is nothing stilted about these essays.

Every reader will come away with favorite essays from this collection – three stood out for me, mainly because they touched a personal nerve or two. What I liked most about the essays in general was how Michael Cohen artfully — or maybe just naturally — integrates life with books and books with life. Everywhere, for him, there is the synapse between experience and books read.

Michael Cohen has given us a collection of personal retrospectives that deserve a place in the finest tradition of the American essay. They are simple and direct—amusing, highly personal, and insightful. They’ll make you smile, smirk, frown, and gasp, but they’ll never bore. I promise.

– E. A. Allen, author of the Montclaire Mysteries

The act of reading is one thing, but to really love reading means sharing with others the gifts and flaws that admired writers have delivered to us across time and place. It is to interpret those writers’ attempts “to describe what is indescribable,” as E.B. White once put it, and remind us of what those writers reveal about the world and ourselves. That is the promise Michael Cohen makes to readers of his essays in A Place to Read.

Cohen, a retired literature professor, neatly ties together his personal essays with ribbons of pithy wisdom from writers he describes with familiarity and reverence, like beloved aunts and uncles he hasn’t seen in years. When summarizing the effect Proust and Montaigne had on him in the frankly-named essay, “A Retiree Reads Proust and Montaigne,” he explains, “both these writers provided me with what I was after: some self-indulgence and a good dose of the subjective.

It doesn’t matter how many of the authors a reader has met before; Cohen will introduce you to them anew. In fact, A Place to Read is most fun when the reader tries to keep up with Cohen’s literary associations. The author is in his element when linking Hamlet to  the features of Moleskine notebooks by way of James Joyce and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ writing processes as in the essay, “Notebooks.” Or, in one of his strongest narratives, Cohen constructs a vision of Mexico starting with his 1965 spring break visit to a NASA tracking station in Guaymas as Gemini 3 circled the Earth. Then he somehow ends with discovering Frida Kahlo’s ashes, while along the way conjuring Mary McCarthy, Alain de Botton and Susan Sontag as if they were Mexico’s scenic lookouts, crammed megacities or rugged canyons.

In embracing this professorial voice, Cohen becomes a confident and unapologetic scholarly tour guide, showing the reader around the seemingly random but intensely personal places of his life. To your left is the Barrancas del Cobre in Mexico. Straight ahead you’ll see a roadside memorial outside Tucson. Here are the bookshelves being emptied as formerly treasured books are being sold off.

And often the places he shows us represent more than just backdrops or settings. Place bolsters the understanding of his life at particular stages and tethers him to specific states of mind. Place, then, is a metaphysical concept that streams through the essays. “I am located when I am in one of these places,” he writes of his dual homes in Tucson, Arizona, and on the Blood River in western Kentucky.

In the title essay, Cohen invites readers to question the relationship between space and the act of absorbing what books offer us:

When I think about the power of reading to transform place and the way real readers read anywhere, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about the idea of ‘reading rooms,’ places designed specifically for reading.

 

Cohen does stumble in the essay “Men in Uniform” when he uses outdated generalizations, presumably to amuse. Instead, they seem to jolt the reader out of the informative and thought-provoking place to read that Cohen has constructed.

Cohen begins that essay, “One of the many reasons I am glad to be male—right up there with never having to deal with menstruation and usually being able to get my carry-on out of the overhead compartment by myself—is the clothes.”

Later in “Men in Uniform,” Cohen describes the sentiments in Ilene Beckerman’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, as “unthinkable except perhaps for gay men: straight men do not ordinarily associate their affective lives with their clothes or shoes.”

But Cohen, as any good essayist, is inviting us into his mind, his experience, his particular shade of glasses through which this retired professor, amateur pilot, compulsive reader, happy golfer, proud father, eager traveler and shrewd observer views the world.

In doing so, Cohen spends as much effort prompting readers to think about life as he does showing how great literature can inform us about the joys of flying or comprehending death or about the construction pens and the nature of names. Cohen wrestles with existential questions that confound us all without straining for answers that he doesn’t have:

… in fact the impatient skywatcher sees little of what the heavens offer. One cannot even begin to see dim objects until the eyes are dark-adapted, so the first twenty to thirty minutes under the stars have to be indirect gestures toward seeing.

At his best, Cohen treats the essays like indirect gestures toward understanding life. And that’s worth finding a place to read.

– Ryan Alessi, New Madrid

Michael Cohen

Since his retirement from university teaching, Michael Cohen has been writing personal essays about his family, about lifelong pursuits such as golf and birding, about newer interests in flying and amateur astronomy, and above all about six decades of reading.

His essays – collected here in A Place to Read – have appeared in Harvard Review, Birding, The Humanist, The Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review.

He is the author of five books, including an introductory poetry text, The Poem in Question (Harcourt Brace, 1983) and an award-winning book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Georgia, 1989).


Links


Michael Cohen's Amazon Author Central page

His PEN America page

His blog


Sample


from 'A Place to Read'

I’ve always suspected that the proliferation of Starbucks and other specialty coffee stores was caused by people who don’t actually like coffee. Your true coffee lover will drink anything that passes for the stuff, from the so-weak brew that the traditional coffee shop or breakfast parlor serves to the stark and acrid distillate of the pot that’s been on all day at the office. My drawing teacher, who carried a coffee mug around through his long day of teaching studio classes, told me once that if you liked coffee enough you could learn to like it cold, by which he meant tepid, after it had lost its pot heat—and so he did. The Starbucks customer craves something different from the pure cuppa joe—something involving technology and materialism, a touch of Europe: coffee bisque or coffee soda, cream of coffee or tincture of coffee. The real coffee lover doesn’t need frills or even fresh. The sailor long at sea will stoke his pot with the coffee he’s got, weevils or not. The Arizona prospector carefully keeps his dried-out grind from blowing away in the wind as he boils the water for his java.

I want to make a similar point about the true reader and places to read. It’s the dilettante reader who needs the light just so over his favorite comfy chair, who buys the “serious tools for serious readers” that one catalogue so pretentiously describes: tilted editors’ stands and rolling adjustable reading carts like hospital meal tray holders. The really serious reader doesn’t even bother sitting down for half her reading: you’ll find her hunched over the counter in the kitchen reading a newspaper story whose headline (“Librarian Robs Coffee Shop”) has caught her eye, standing between the aisles in the bookstore going through the entire first chapter (“The Little Black Dress”) of Nancy Smith’s book The Classic Ten, or, her book hand through the strap on the subway, clutching her purse with the other hand, she stands swaying through her whole commute, even though seats have opened up around her, while she finishes Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

There is no chair, bed, or couch space in my house where I haven’t spent time reading. I read on the living room couch, sitting or lying down, at the dining table, in a Backsaver chair in the bedroom, at my study desk, in bed, sitting on the toilet. I also read while riding as a passenger in cars, trains, and airplanes, in restaurants when I am eating alone, in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and Jiffy Lubes, as well as in the local public library and the college library where I used to teach.

The miracle about reading and space, of course, is that reading transcends space: it takes you away. You don’t think about where you are because, your consciousness being the most important part of you, you aren’t there in the most important sense. Malcolm X makes the point strikingly in his Autobiography, when he describes learning to read in prison: “Every free moment I had,” he says, “if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk.” And the experience transforms his sense of where he is: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

Barbara Holland says we don’t have to be actually reading to be transported by a book; it is enough to have read it. She describes a child—I take it to be her, though she makes the gender male—who has had this experience in school. The child is bored and begins to lose touch with the room and the teacher’s voice. “He might struggle to hang on to reality,” she writes, “but in a matter of minutes his essence was sucked from him and remolded into Huck on the river, Kim on the Grand Trunk Road, Jim Hawkins on the Hispaniola, leaving but an empty husk at his desk.” I am quoting from her essay “Books”, in the delightful Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences (1995), where she argues that books can “move permanently into one’s head and construct their own space” so that we can go inside our own heads to open a door to go elsewhere.

Reading Rooms

When I think about the power of reading to transform place and the way real readers read anywhere, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about the idea of “reading rooms”, places designed specifically for reading. On the one hand, I know their importance in research libraries: the reading room keeps the books contained while they are in use as well as makes the researchers as comfortable as is practical. One can’t have scholars taking First Folios out onto the Folger’s front steps so that they can read in the spring sunlight. I have spent many hours in the reading rooms of research libraries, the huge circular, domed reading room of the old British Museum library and the humbler manuscript reading room that was just down the hall, the elegant Huntington Library reading rooms, one with a view of the magnificent gardens, the Folger’s reading rooms with their ersatz Elizabethan comfort, and the New York Public Library’s reading room, with its two rows of long tables, each table with a bookstand at its outside end, nearest the shelves of reference works.

On the other hand, the most familiar library reading rooms for me are not places where special collections are in use but rather places meant for students to read and study, and about these rooms I have my doubts, the result of many distractions over many years. Two such reading rooms, where I’ve spent more time than in any others, are in the library at my alma mater, where I studied for nine years and three degrees, and the one in the library at the college where I taught for twenty-seven years. Both were built in the twenties, as parts of their respective campuses’ main libraries, and both have been relegated to other purposes now that newer main libraries on each campus have superseded the originals.

The University of Arizona’s library reading room when I went to school there—now a reference reading room for the Arizona State Museum—is a huge chamber at the front of the building, facing the palm-lined avenue that leads through the campus. On that front wall are nine tall arched windows, each with a horizontal break two-thirds of the way to the top. The windows go up to within two feet of the twenty-foot ceiling. Smaller windows, eleven in all, surround the sides and top of the arches. There are low bookcases under the windows, and six-foot high bookcases between them. On the inner wall, a six-foot high bookcase runs the whole length of the room, which is 125 feet long and 40 wide. Panels run up another five feet above the bookcases, and the rest of the wall, up to the twenty-foot ceiling, is plastered. All the bookcases and paneling are of cherry, but the window moldings are made of Mexican amapa, a dense, pretty hardwood from the Sonoran highlands south of the border.

I was reading Virgil for my sophomore Humanities class. We only had to read the first four books of the Aeneid, but I didn’t seem to be getting on too rapidly; I had been at it over an hour and I was only about four hundred lines in. Aeneas and Achates had just encountered Juno’s temple in the new city of Carthage. With them, I was entering the temple

where steps of bronze led up
To a threshold bronze-inlaid and doorpost bound
With rivets of bronze and great bronze hinges creaking
In the bronze doors

That’s a lot of bronze, I thought. I looked around the room. The only bronze—or perhaps it was brass—was in the chandeliers: they were suspended by chains and had a brass or bronze band from which the lamps projected. Into the brass band was engraved the Greek border decoration called a... what was it called? That’d be on the Greek architecture quiz.

Above the chandeliers, two large encased beams ran the length of the room, intersected by nine cross beams and paralleled by smaller beams. The background between beams was painted in verdigris (Juno’s temple was quickly receding), and the beams themselves were beige, decorated in pale salmon and grey paint. The bays defined by the crossbeams were outlined in dark green, and each of the smallest beams had a design that looked like a low relief Corinthian capital repeated three times, each repetition divided from the next by a salmon panel. The crossbeams had a salmon reversing design like a shield, all set into the beam a few inches, and the inset surrounded by a carved molding. The larger long beams had at each end an X made of leaf forms, and in between a shell and several flourishes in salmon and gray. The whole ceiling joined the wall with two sets of moldings, the first of gold squares separated by double salmon lines; the lower molding, a carved plaster one of gilt acanthus leaves.

I studied that ceiling more than any passage in my books. It struck me at the time, and it still does, that the room’s size and its ornateness was really no help to the purpose for which it was intended. Its settled, classical order soothed the eye that strayed from the book. Nothing in the room rebuked the inattentive reader.

Twenty years later, I was in the reading room of the Forrest C. Pogue Library on the campus of the college where I taught, Murray State University. It was evening, and the arched windows appeared to be glazed in black. Here, too the rounded-arch windows stretched up eighteen feet or more, though the room was a more comfortable size and shape: fifty feet by eighty feet, with a ceiling twenty-four feet high. Here square pilasters separated the windows, which looked out on three sides of the room. Ionic capitals and carved plaster bosses topped the columns, with the university’s shield below plasterwork drapery. This ceiling was coffered, with the three large central coffers having octangular bosses from which hung single chains that each separated into four lamp supports, with single, hemispherical globes surrounded by a brass ring decorated with the Greek decorative border called... a meander! That’s it!

I realized suddenly that Eavan Boland was in the middle of a poem whose first half I had missed while I stared at plasterwork and brass. She was reading “The Latin Lesson” about studying Virgil as a child in a convent school:

My forefinger crawls on the lines.
A storm light comes in from the bay.
How beautiful the words
look, how
vagrant and strange on the page

I like Eavan Boland and her poems; I didn’t like to be giving her half my attention, but it seemed somehow to be the ironic fate of reading in this reading room, a room where we in the English Department did not go to read, but to be read to by visiting poets and novelists. We held readings here because it was a beautiful space. But beauty has its own presence and life.

In the poem, the girl studying Virgil finds in the pages a presence and a savage life that she dare not take back to the unsuspecting nuns who demand civility and gentility of their charges: she wonders how

before the bell
will I hail the black keel and flatter the dark
boatman and cross the river and still
keep a civil tongue
in my head?

I saw the little girl, meeting Virgil earlier than I had, taken out of her reading space into his particular underworld. I took my eyes from the pretty, neoclassical plasterwork and listened to the poems.

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