Kurt Andersen Opens the Cabinet of Wonder
My most memorable reading experience of the last ten years? I assume we are talking
about published writing. And therefore the letter from my mother that I first
read upon her death last spring twenty-three handwritten, yellow legal-pad pages,
sixteen years in the making, repeatedly amended, filled with the usual necessary but
banal details about the disposition of stock certificates and soup tureens as
well as breathtaking asides about the meaning of life doesn't count.
And the last ten years? The last ten years? That time frame
is a little problematic.
I think one's supremely memorable reading experiences almost necessarily occur
when one is young. And I'm minutes from turning fifty. So every one of my dozen
most memorable, electrifying reading experiences Huckleberry
Tom Wolfe's Electric
Kool-Aid Acid Test, Emerson's essays, Hunter Thompson's Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones,
discovering National Lampoon, discovering the New Yorker,
Mark Helprin's Refiner's
Fire, Walker Percy's Love
in the Ruins and Don DeLillo's Americana
took place between 1967 and 1977, the decade of my extended adolescence.
The other problem with the last ten years is that for eight of them
I've devoted myself to becoming a novelist. And so I think I've gone out of
my way not quite consciously but pretty effectively to limit my
Memorable Reading Experiences. When I'm at the feverish work of trying to write
a good novel, I want to avoid the risk of undue influence or anxiety that might
be provoked by reading great ones.
So I have two answers. Lawrence Wechsler's Mr.
Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder was the last piece of narrative non-fiction that
astounded and pleased me intensely and became immediately hard-wired into my
personal epistemology. Unfortunately, if I were to describe it here in any detail,
I would spoil its fun a little for people who haven't read it. The book's pleasure
its maximum memorability depends on a certain slow reveal of its
secrets. So: trust me: read it.
The other work that has fairly staggered me recently is not a book at all, but
the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com).
It was created is being created by an heroic writer and historian
named Doug Harper. I stumbled across it a few years ago when I began researching
the nineteenth century for my second novel. But I don't just consult it I browse,
I read, I revel and wallow in its troves of English language archaeology. I
adore words like thwack, hullabaloo and scrunch, and I
loved learning that they're 500, 250, and almost 200 years old, respectively.
I have delighted in assembling a kind of core sample of particular historical
moments, such as 1848, when (give or take a year) the words up-and-coming,
randy, guy, cardboard, exam, moniker, and
snob all popped into the language.
Kurt Andersen hosts Public Radio International's Studio 360, an examination
of arts and culture heard on public radio stations nationwide. He is also an
author; his first novel, Turn
of the Century (Random House, 1999), was called "wickedly satirical" by
the New York Times. Andersen began his career at Time, as an award-winning
writer on national affairs and criminal justice, before becoming the magazine's
architecture and design critic. His writing has also appeared in the New
Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling
Stone, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, and Architectural
Record. He regularly appears as a commentator on The Charlie Rose Show,
CNN, and MSNBC. Andersen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and
lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.