Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The End Game at the Talbot County Free Library
We've lost some great writers in the last few years. I'm of an age where one notices such things. Seamus Heaney, whose last words ended up being a text message he sent his wife from his hospital bed: “Noli timere”—Latin for “Never fear”—a reference to the final verse of a love poem (Scaffolding) he'd once written to her. Joan Didion, whose Slouching Toward Bethlehem was a major influence on the generation that came of age in the '60s (yours truly included), and whose The Year of Magical Thinking, written thirty-some-odd years later, served as a memento mori for that same generation. And Jack Gilbert, who, in the poem A Brief for the Defense, wisely advised against a perpetual state of moral outrage: “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world. To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. / If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”
In May, we lost one of my all-time favorite baseball writers, Roger Angell, who wrote for The New Yorker for 76 of his 101 years. He's probably most famous for pointing out that baseball is the one game with no time limit: “… keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” But I love him most for being the only writer, so far as I know, who has ever described how powerful an experience it can be to simply pick up and hold a baseball. “Feel the ball,” he wrote, “turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger …. You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it.”
It was David McCullough's death in August that got me thinking about all this. Over the course of my life, the man has taught me about everything from John Augustus Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge to John Adams' love/hate relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to Ken Burns, McCullough's voice has long since become to American history what Walter Cronkite's was to current events.
As someone who does all his writing in a tiny, cluttered study, it pleased me no end to learn that David McCullough believed, “Nothing good was ever written in a large room.” The man backed up these words with hammer and nails, building a small shed behind his house where he did all his writing. On the desk in that shed he kept a sign that read “Look at the fish.”
Yes, I know, kind of strange, but it turns out the sign referred to a test the 19th century Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz used to set his students. Agassiz would place an old, stinky dead fish on the lab table before one of them and then order him to look at it. At the end of the class, having said no more, Agassiz would walk back over and ask the student what he had seen. No matter what the student told him, Agassiz would smile encouragingly and then repeat his demand: “Look at the fish.” Students came to call this “the ordeal with the fish,” an ordeal that could go on for days, class after class.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 1999, McCullough explained, “I love that story and have used it often when teaching classes on writing, because seeing is so important in this work. Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what's been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new. Seeing is as much the job of an historian as it is of a poet or painter…. That's Dickens' great admonition to all writers, 'Make me see.'”
McCullough made us see. As did Heaney, Didion, Gilbert, and so many other great writers now gone. And their deaths make us see something else as well. The baseball announcer Vin Scully (another great wordsmith recently departed) once described a player who had just come off the Injured List as “day-to-day.” He paused for a moment, before leaning back into the mike and adding, “But, then again, I suppose all of us, in one way or another, are 'day-to-day.'”
Great writers' deaths remind us of just how “day-to-day” we really are; they make us want to grab as much life as we can, while we can. But they also remind us of something else, the fact that writing, like baseball, can defeat time, defeat death, that, in a very real sense, these authors are immortal, for their works as yet live and breathe at the Talbot County Free Library.
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