SENIOR MOMENTS: Looking Back, Looking Ahead. By Willard Spiegelman. FSG. 191 pages. $24.
Willard Spiegelman writes essays like Ferran Adria approached “molecular” gastronomy, with conscious, understated artistry.
While generally a hopeful sort, here and there in this slim but thoughtful collection of essays, Spiegelman is as glum as he is enthusiastic, not least on the paradox of humanity’s insignificance.
But if lucidity and essence, alloyed with depth, are what he expects of great writing, he generally delivers what he advocates. And with an elastic, youthful temperament that belies the book’s title. The author’s reflections on growing older frame the book; they do not define it.
Spiegelman, 71, distinguished professor of English at Southern Methodist University and former editor of the Southwest Review, is most engaging on the subject he knows best. He defines good writing as what makes you interested in something you are not interested in. Yet few of these pieces lack relevance. Spiegelman is especially adroit on poetry, admiring verse that seduces through “condensation and expansive suggestiveness,” prompting each reader to respond to and decipher it individually. In any field of writing, he respects and seeks out those demonstrating “cool clarity, sharpened perception, and a transparent style.”
Occasionally, this prompts the native Philadelphian to be offhand and a bit waspish regarding work he considers less aesthetically sound or pleasing, but perhaps this comes with the territory, and he certainly has a right to his preferences.
On other matters, one may disagree with any number of his pronouncements, such as “the most compelling revelations always come to travelers in the most ordinary situations,” that in our digital age “all that recommends books as material objects” is their decorative appeal or “their manifestation of cultural capital,” or that, more prosaically, “driving closes the mind to everything but driving itself.” Certainly, all these things depend on the individual.
A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Spiegelman deals with the glories of books and reading as well as the freedom of saying “No thanks” to many a book, including some celebrated classics.
He writes feelingly on the selective perceptions and sentimentality of nostalgia in its diluted form, its gratifications when robust; on Japan as the most “American” of Asian cultures; on travel as a means of seeing the “pathos of the everyday” and discovering that “even the banal gets infused with the exotic just by virtue of existing elsewhere or in a different context.”
He ponders the wisdom of the adage “ask, and you shall learn,” the virtues of solitary contemplation of a work of art, the arrant self-congratulation of the “selfie” and gratuitous standing ovations; the best ways to confront the visible evidence of life’s depredations; quiet as a disappearing resource (even in libraries) and the near impossibility of having a civilized conversation in noisy restaurants.
He also takes time to contrast, with telling effect, his 40-year residence in Dallas — an ordered collection of suburbs with rich amenities on which the arts are artificially (if artfully) imposed — vs. his adopted home of Manhattan, an organic city vigorous with public life and pregnant with possibility.
In all, “Senior Moments” is a welcome companion to previous books by Spiegelman such as “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness,” reminding us that individuality is a virtue, art an enrichment, and that wellsprings of joy can be found in the most unexpected places.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a freelance writer and editor based in Charleston.