Conde Zero

Recently in The New Yorker about procrastination: “Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.” Last spring, I fell three months behind on my New Yorker reading. If only I’d had a valet.

I’m still not sure how it happened. While I take my subscription more seriously than most — every issue, cover to cover, listings included, for the last seven years — a kind of regular mental exercise — I had never fallen so far behind before. The issue stack rose to half a foot high on my coffee table. March, April, May, until I climbed back on the wagon.

I thought about declaring bankruptcy. But I hadn’t made my payments for seven years just to give up. I’d fallen behind before, and I’d worked my way through. So, I set out to do the same. I read on planes, at the beach, on the couch to get tired at night, and on every subway ride to and from the new job. When a colleague borrowed one copy on a flight and lost it, I printed my remaining 40 pages in the issue from the Web.

About a week ago, I finished the last issue in the house, but I was too close to the next issue’s arrival to declare New Yorker Zero. As a twotime veteran of Inbox Zero, I believe declaring zero on content means the next piece can’t be on its way. There needs to be some clearance room. So, I decided to go for Conde Zero. In my Remnickian quest, I’d fallen three issues behind on Wired, another good cover-to-cover read.

I finished the last Wired yesterday and the most recent New Yorker this evening, with a Skins game as incentive. Another quote from the valet story felt perfect: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing… Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.”

Tonight, I’m happy about my answer to that question. I’m glad I didn’t give up. I’m relieved to be done. And I’m ready for the next issue. For you, here are some of the passages that made the reading worth it.

1. From the listings:

For those who are unmoved by Gormley’s patented pathos of the human figure in industrial materials, he provides a winningly abstract tour de force: a walk-in skeletal architecture of slim metal bars in nested rectilinear forms — sort of LeWittian, only too complex to be grasped at a glance — painted phosphorescent white, aglow in a pitch-dark room. Every ten minutes, fifteen thousand watts’ worth of floodlights clang on, briefly, to recharge the luminescence and, incidentally, to rattle the hell out of you.

2. Covering fashion-mashing site Polyvore, with a Yahoo Pipes past:

Sadri, who is thirty-five and projects an air of serenity that belies all the frenetic data-crunching around him, was born in Iran. “I grew up playing Legos,” he said. “I think that was an important factor in shaping the person that I am.” When you put on clothes, he said, “you are making that sort of assembly from pieces that you have—this is the Lego analogy—and it’s highly integrated with your identity.”

3. A Saul Bellow letter, about holding back in a piece of writing:

But there is a certain diffidence about me, not very obvious socially, to my own mind, that prevents me from going all out, as you call it. I assemble the dynamite but I am not ready to touch off the fuse. Why? Because I am working toward something and have not yet arrived. I once mentioned to you, I think, that one of the things that made life difficult for me was that I wanted to write before I had sufficient maturity to write as “high” as I wished and so I had a very arduous and painful apprenticeship and still am undergoing it. This journeyman idea has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. It makes me a craftsman – and few writers now are that – but it gives me a refuge from the peril of final accomplishment. “Lord, pardon me, I’m still preparing, not fully a man as yet.” I’m like the young man in the Gospels, or have been till lately. “Give all thou hast and follow me,” says Christ. The young man goes away to think it over and so is lost. There’s a limit to thinking it over…

4. Conductor William Christie on early-music playing:

“Students have been taught to play exactly what they see in front of them… You rigorously follow all the instructions communicated by the composer.” In early music, he went on, the attitude is quite different: “Don’t play what’s on the page, or the score will be dead, deader than a doorknob. You’ve got to become a specialist. Do something to the score, help it along, nurture it, give it substance. Understand that it is a partial document—a document that wants to be completed.”

5. On the possibility the Odyssey wasn’t what it seemed:

At the heart of its narrative Russian dolls and suggestive punning is a profound, ongoing exploration of identity: what does it mean, after all, if your cleverness, the trick that at once defines you and which you need to stay alive, reduces you to being “no one”? At the end of the Odyssey, you get the answers to questions that start forming in the first line, the first word of which is andra, “man”: to be a man, a human being, wildly inventive and creative but inevitably subject to dreadful forces beyond our control — which is to say, death — is to be something wonderful and, at the same time, “nothing.” The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing.

6. From an April issue, poet Kay Ryan’s “That Will to Divest.”