- Sep 5 2:56 AMI'm not sure whether I can or should defend the classics. I love
them, of course, but I don't have a cell phone and threw out my TV
long ago. I don't tend to buy new books. For one thing, I have no room
for more books. So, like a certain sad alcoholic uncle who died
alone, I tend to take five books from the library and read two or
three right to the end.
I took Anthony Everitt's Augustus from the New York Public Library. As
I started to read, I thought that the book was printed in two colors;
the maps and pages were adorned with careful purple handwriting. No,
these were corrections by a previous reader. Nor was the previous
reader thorough. I discovered new mistakes on every page. How could
Random House do such a piss-poor job publishing?
Sadly, I know only too well. The late Richard Morris was a dear friend
and when he began publishing popular science books, I'd try to read
them. Frequently I would give up after forty or fifty pages, because,
I thought, science was beyond me. Then one day it flashed -- the
computer "spell check" had corrected an "error" with the wrong word,
reducing pages and pages to nonsense. Richard's books are 2% gibberish.
What labor classical scholars have expended over the centuries getting
their texts correct! Perhaps I love to read the Aeneid or The Iliad
with my little Latin and Greek because I feel the immensity of human
attention, intelligence and love which have been expended to preserve
I never published an issue of my magazine Unmuzzled OX without
typographical errors. Proofreading in 1971 was always done in pairs.
Jack Unterecker, my advisor at Columbia, taught me the routine. The
walls of Jack's apartment were covered with bookcases. He was a
joyful man, but the times, I think, really wrecked his life. His wife
came out as a Lesbian, Farrar-Strauss mangled his biography of Hart
Crane, and the 1968 student uprising at Columbia culminated, for Jack,
with the first of a series of heart attacks which eventually killed him.
You can't read another person's life with certitude. Carolyn Heilbrun
was known at Columbia at the time for tying feminism and
literature--or so Lyndall Gordon told me. I passed on Heilbrun's
courses, but read mysteries she wrote under the pen name Amanda
Cross. One day I came across her email address and wrote her a fan
letter. To my surprise, she responded, and we began a regular
correspondence. At one point I lamented that after Jack's death
Columbia held no memorial. This contrasted with the reaction after
Kenneth Koch's death. Carolyn responded with the only email which
seemed like inappropriate feminist boilerplate, viz., Jack was a
victim of the old boys' network. The truth, as I'm sure she knew, was
rather the opposite.
I went on a lengthy trip and the emails ceased. I learned that while I
traveled Heilbrun had committed suicide. She had been sick, someone
told me; but then a note appeared in The Times in which her son said,
no, his mother had been in perfect health.
At this point in this posting I might be expected to wrap these words
up by quoting, say, Virgil's rendering of the suicide of Dido. After
the artist Ray Johnson committed suicide by drowning himself in Sag
Harbor, I bought Emile Durkheim's classic Suicide to try to figure out
why. There are people who believe there's nothing to add to Durkheim's
book. Durkheim was a 19th century French sociologist. August Comte,
who is credited with the invention of sociology, attempted suicide as
a young man by throwing himself in the Seine. Unlike Ray, Comte was
saved. If Comte had succeeded at killing himself, we'd never know why,
by this reckoning, because his student wouldn't have written the final
word on that grimmest subject, Suicide. Comte's death would just be
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