And Other Essays
In this essay collection, Michael Cohen presents the odd idea of the suicide note as a writing project that can be critiqued like any other, describes encounters with illegal border crossers in south Texas, and ponders the sudden popularity of books about atheism. Books are a frequent subject here, and Cohen makes an argument for The Maltese Falcon as the Great American Novel, searches for the perfect, the Platonic, nature handbook, and compares playing golf to reading about it. Reading is, for him, as engrossing a form of experience as any other—say hitchhiking through the Southwest with an old friend, the joys of flying small planes, or the charm of studying ancient Greek while people-watching at the gym, all experiences chronicled here. He looks back at the effect a 1956 collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon had on him as a kid fond of flying, and how he learned about the joys of good food during a wanderjahr in Europe. Many of these essays begin with a question: whether Americans deserve their reputation for materialism, why we seem to have lost the climate change battle, and whether talking to yourself might really be beneficial. Another frequent topic is how our ideal places cannot avoid being bruised by time. He looks at what happened as the Tucson bars of his college days closed or morphed into very different places. He traces seasonal changes in the desert. He notes what happens to its effect when a giant cross beside I-40 in Texas is joined by equally giant windmills. And he takes a mind’s-eye tour through Paris’s terrace cafés and their literary associations after the 2015 terrorist attack there.
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A curious observer in the vast world is at the center of these astute and wonderfully varied essays. From climate change to the American obsession with certificates to the vanity of gym patrons to his education as a foodie, there is nothing that Michael Cohen does not wonder about. What’s behind the early twenty-first century vogue for big books advocating atheism? he asks. What does it mean that some of us talk to ourselves aloud? And why can’t our “big brains” save humanity? He explores it all with a touch of humor and an abundance of fascinating information. In the tradition of the best personal essays, these two dozen selections only seem sometimes to free-associate. Cohen knows his purpose, and in each essay, it isn’t long before he leads us to discover that purpose along with him. There’s a lifetime of reading and thinking poured into this collection, but it’s never displayed showily. Like a friendly guide or a talented teacher (which he is), Cohen inspires our own curiosity and makes us wonder about all the things we’ve haven’t thought to wonder about before.
— Evelyn Somers, Associate Editor, the Missouri Review
Don’t Read the Whole Thing
John Rawls, introducing his influential A Theory of Justice, does a remarkable thing for an author. “This is a long book,” he writes, and then proceeds to explain how you can get the theory he presents along with explanations of terms and pertinent examples by reading sections of the book that amount to only about a third of his 600 pages! It would be churlish not to take this advice, I thought, choosing the 200-page option. Plenty of other books, in my opinion—famous ones, classics, and supposed must-reads—should be preceded by Rawls-like advice about how to read them without reading all of them.
According to Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Yes, even the classics may need some selective tasting. By all means read every word of The Odyssey, the master narrative of Western literature, because it will entertain, and, if you are a storyteller, train you as well. But The Iliad is another matter. When Homer describes encounters between Paris and Hector or Hector and Andromache, still more when he turns his merciless attention to Trojans and Greeks killing each other, he will keep anyone’s interest. But if you read every item in his catalogues of which country sent how many ships to Troy, only if you have a map of ancient city-states before you and a passion for ancient geography will you stay awake. By all means, skim Homer’s lists as you would the begats in Genesis. Just keep in mind that Homer’s catalogues really did interest his first readers and still command the attention of students of the ancient world.
The Aeneid requires cutting on a different plan. Here it’s pretty much a matter of checking out after the councils of the gods in Book 1, the escape from Troy in 2, Aeneas’s travels in 3, the romance of Dido and Aeneas in 4, and the trip to the Underworld in 6. In 6 we get a prophecy of what happens until the founding of Rome, but we don’t have to actually live through the enactment of the prophecy.
Authors may not be as helpful as John Rawls, but they do sometimes signal where your attention can wander. When a shepherd in Don Quixote begins to tell a story peopled by no one we’ve yet met but rather folks with conventional Romantic names, it’s safe to skip the rest of that chapter and possibly the next; the chapter titles will tell us when the main narrative resumes.
The point is that life is short and some books—even some very good books—are too long. A lot of selective reading is just taste, of course. At the halfway point in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich I realized that Hitler’s monomaniacal hobbling of his generals’ freedom to act and other aspects of the war’s progress were going to be far less interesting to me than the story of Hitler’s complicated and politically astute climb to power had been, and I just stopped reading. It’s your reading life, after all, and no one else’s; find the good parts and leave the rest unread.
The Cross and the Windmills
Drivers on Interstate 40, coming over a low hill on the Texas plains east of Amarillo, see on the horizon a white cross. The town nearby is Groom, with about six hundred residents, located on a bypass from the interstate, a little piece of the old Route 66. The cross, when it suddenly appeared on the horizon and grew gradually bigger as I approached, was until recently an imposing and isolated sight, dominating an otherwise empty landscape. Since the cross is visible for nearly ten miles, there is a lot of time to wonder at its presence, to speculate on exactly how big it is and who erected it. I discovered the answers to these questions by pulling into the small park next to the cross and reading the information posted there.
The cross is almost sixty meters high—190 feet to be exact, or as tall as a 15-story building. Its arms stretch 110 feet. For comparison, the statue of Christ the Redeemer that looks out over Rio de Janeiro from the top of Corcovado Mountain is only 30 meters tall, though it has the advantage of Corcovado’s 700-meter height to give it prominence. The stylized corrugations representing folds in the robe in Paul Landowski’s Art Deco design for Cristo Redentor may possibly have suggested the fluting or channeling in the skin of the Groom cross. Two Texas millionaires are responsible for the cross. Chris Britten, who owned the large, now defunct gas station, curio shop, and restaurant nearby, donated the land, and Steve Thomas had the cross built in sections in Pampa, Texas, before it was transported and assembled at this site in 1995. Bronze statues representing the stations of the cross and other sacred subjects ring the white metal cross. These include a pietá copied from Michelangelo, a St. Michael and Lucifer that could be mistaken for St. George and the Dragon, a fountain, an empty tomb, an anti-abortion monument, and the ten commandments. But the main player is the cross, dwarfing all the bronze below. Yet it is almost an anticlimax to arrive at the cross, since we can only imagine its size, with nothing to provide scale, during our approach to it, and it could, for all we could guess from ten or five miles away, be four hundred feet tall.
Not long ago as I drove on I-40, approaching the cross at Groom, I saw on the horizon white shapes of a very different sort, dozens of them, and all larger than the Groom cross. They were the huge three-bladed windmills or wind turbines that we have become accustomed to seeing over the last few
years on the windy plains of America. Cross and turbines have in common a certain mysteriousness of scale: I find it difficult, even when I am within a few hundred yards, to guess how large they are. But I have often seen on the road trucks transporting the blades of turbines, and with cars for comparison I have no trouble comprehending that each blade is over a hundred feet long.
In fact the blades are 130 feet long, and the tower that supports them is over two hundred fifty feet high, so the structure, when a blade is pointing straight up, is easily four hundred feet tall, or more than twice the height of the Groom cross, and there are dozens of them in view as one approaches and drives by the cross. The wind turbines (socalled even though they are not actually turbines but simple generators powered by the geared-up turning of a wind fan) are often arranged along the fronts of mesas so that they look like modern equivalents of the windmills of La Mancha, and I can imagine that some wizard—Frestón, for instance—had replaced the old landmarks with these three-armed white giants. Wind farms, they call these collections, and some in America have almost five thousand of the turbines.
I have to think that at least part of the intent and effort of the two millionaires who put up the cross has been frustrated. The intent, I imagine, was at least partly to create a particular moment of contemplation of Christianity’s central symbol and of what it means to those speeding toward it over the
plains of the Texas Panhandle at seventy-five miles an hour. Whether our thoughts were contemplative and religious, or whether, like me, you were merely marveling at the scale of the cross, it captured your thoughts for the time it took to reach it. It gestured upward from a terrain of flatness and
clear views to a far horizon. Like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, the cross organized a natural landscape with the insertion of a man-made object and perhaps pointed thoughts toward a third realm beyond the physical.
But no more. What has happened here is partly dilution and partly distraction. Attention that once had been trained solely on the cross is now divided among a number of monumental shapes on the plain. An added distraction is the movement of the new shapes. An aesthetic question arises: is the cross more beautiful than the windmills, or vice versa? And beyond aesthetics is the question of meaning and meaningful activity: the cross does symbolic work while the wind turbines do real work. The many questions the turbines raise do not touch the metaphysical. Who put them up?
Where does the electricity they generate get distributed, and how much juice is there? Does the wind always blow here? How long does it take for the electricity generated to pay off the cost of these huge machines? Wind turbines call us to the things of this world.
Sorry, But I Enjoy Air Travel
It’s common for travelers to complain about flying, while writers and comedians make rueful comedy about it. George Carlin most notably dissected airline P. A. announcements, from the idiocy of “pre-boarding” to the jaw-droppingly naïve instruction to “breathe normally” when an emergency oxygen mask drops ominously in front of your face.
I like to travel by air. I fly my own airplane for fun, but I travel by commercial airliner. I won’t try to convince you that all aspects of it are pleasant; you know better. But I have convinced myself that any unpleasantness is much magnified—or greatly improved—by attitude. Take, for example, the matter of luggage. A car encourages you to fill its trunk. Trains and buses suggest by their size that they have room for anything you can bring. Only air travel demands that you ask yourself what is necessary to pack. I realized long ago that the pilots’ and flight attendants’ tote on top of a small rolling case made all kinds of sense and was probably a restriction arrived at through compromise: what the crews absolutely needed for stays that could be unpredictably long versus the airlines’ necessity to provide space for the paying rather than the paid souls on board. I may be odd in enjoying the challenge of choice or rejection of that stylin’ sweater, and I positively enjoy the game of reducing weight and bulk in my shaving and medication kit.
When a jet leaves the ground, the pilot raises the nose to a steep attitude for the climb out. To a person like myself trained to fly in small non-jet planes, it’s an impossible angle that I know will result in a stall, after which the plane will drop immediately several hundred feet; since we are so near the ground, we will crash. It doesn’t happen, of course, because the thrust of these jet airplanes allows them to practically stand on their tails, but for me, it’s one of several moments in commercial flying when I am forced to think about the imminence of death. Another such moment is the landing, which in a jet takes place at a speed entirely too close to two hundred miles an hour. Again, landing my own small plane is different: it is an exhilarating feeling of being the only one responsible for getting this puppy safely onto the ground, but it takes place at speeds that quickly slow from a hundred miles an hour to less than fifty.
I should make clear that I don’t think occasionally imagining that one’s death is close is a bad thing. We don’t do it often enough, I believe. Those who don’t fly or those fliers who are utterly indifferent to the experience never feel those moments of near-terror that others of us do: not just the volaphobes—if there is such a word—but also those of us who don’t fear flying, but who carefully observe the stages of flight that are the most dangerous moments. Most automobile drivers, I suspect, have had a near-crash experience when they do momentarily feel the brush of the dark angel’s wing. Flying is exhilarating for me partly because of such moments in the air, brief as they may be.
But most of the exhilaration of flying commercial is in the sheer unlikelihood of it all. That feeling when the wheels leave the ground and their unpleasant vibration gives way to smoothness and freedom, for example, is always increased for me when I’m looking from the back of a 747 across eight rows of seats and forward most of a football field’s length to the front, thinking, “this is a building that’s launching itself into air!” And even at altitude, flying comfortably along, with a drink on the tray in front of me not even vibrating a bit, I often think how truly wild and strange it is to be going five hundred miles an hour six miles up in the sky without even having my hair ruffled.
A hundred years ago Virginia Woolf noted that “Cultivated people grumble at trains, and, if they are old enough, prefer the days of the stage coach…But surely it is time that someone should sing the praises of express trains.” Air travel needs its boosters, too. No excitement attends waiting in airports, going through lines for security checks, or driving to and from airports, and any one of these chores might end up taking as long as my flight. But these tedious matters enable me to experience the flight itself, a method of travel still astonishing and as different from ordinary modes of getting across land and sea as the soaring of an eagle is from the crawling of an ant. And at the end I am deposited in a different time zone, on another continent, or even half the world away.