Daily Office:
Thursday

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Matins: Musing on the Times’ ten best books of 2008 — of which I’ve read only one.

Sext: Lance Arthur has decided to come out of the closet — as an atheist. This means more than just writing about his lack of faith in his (latest) blog, Just Write.

 ¶ Nones: And we thought it was just us… Every now and then, somebody writes about the fact that almost all advertised watches are set at (roughly) 10:10. The other day, it was Andrew Adam Newman, at the Times. (For Timex, it’s 10:09:36; at Rolex, it’s 10:10:31.) Now Kathleen and I scan the ads for watches that are set at odd times. (via kottke.org)

 ¶ Vespers: Two new biographies of Samuel Johnson occasion one of Adam Gopnik’s invaluable essays.

The worst of literary faults for him is, exactly, tediousness. “We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and over-burdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master and seek for companions.” (His firmest statement on art was that it should be “harmless pleasure.” He knew it would shock in its Philistinism, but he stood by it.) Johnson was certainly “serious” about literature, but he thought that writing was serious as conversation is serious, an occasion for wit and argument, not as sex and sermons are serious, a repository of fears and hungers.

Oremus…

§ Matins. And the only change that I can foresee on that front is Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. I’m sure that Jane Kramer’s The Dark Side is solid, but I read enough of it in The New Yorker. Of the fiction writers other than Joseph O’Neill, I don’t expect to read any more Bolaño or Lahiri; nor do I think that “a master fabulist in the tradition of Poe and Nabo­kov” who “invents spookily plausible parallel universes in which the deepest human emotions and yearnings are transformed into their monstrous opposites” has anything to say to me. Not, at least, if that description is even halfway indicative. (The blurb goes on to say: “Millhauser is especially attuned to the purgatory of adolescence,” and that really does it.

I’ve never read Toni Morrison. For at least two decades, I have crossed the street to avoid all politically correct writers. That included, for a very long time, all Irish writing. When I woke up to Colm Tóibín, I felt, as you can imagine, pretty foolish. David Gates’s review of A Mercy did not make it sound very appealing. But I’m thinking about this writer for the first time.

As for the three non-fiction titles that I haven’t mentioned, I’m still so astonished that the editors of the Book Review managed to ignore John Burrow’s the History of Histories, William J Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange, and Anthony T Kronman’s Educations End that I can’t take their recommendations seriously.

§ Sext. For my part, I have settled into a very comfortable agnosticism. I see absolutely no reason to believe in any higher power whatsoever; nor can I be bothered to prove that no such power exists. I am willing to write this matter off as “currently unknowable,” something that I wish Plato and Aristotle had made a practice of doing, since even though almost everything that they wrote about the actual world is wrong, it has nonetheless shaped Western thinking for over two millennia (which is why you must read Plato and Aristotle). They also provided rigorous-sounding “philosophical” armatures for truly noxious writers like Augustine.

 § Nones. Sadly for the advertisers, neither Kathleen nor I are ever in the market for a watch. I do need a new one, though, because the rubber strap on the Hamilton that I bought almost three years ago in Puerto Rico is beginning to fall apart. The watch, which is an automatic, also needs a cleaning.

Back to the ads, though. Advertisers face a conundrum. On the one hand, they set the watches to the smiley face of 10:10 in order to convey a subliminal feeling of comfort. On the other, their target market notices things — that’s why they care about watches in the first place.

Watch companies, meanwhile, have the unenviable task of creating ads that will be dissected by aficionados, who are by nature obsessed with precision. Ms. Hurni of Ulysse Nardin learned this painfully more than a decade ago, when preparing a watch with day, month and year features for a shoot. Ms. Hurni always sets the calendar date as much as a year ahead, ensuring that the ad will not look dated, but after she set the watch in an ad several months ahead to Sunday, March 19, 1996, some customers sent calendars to the company’s Swiss headquarters to underscore that March 19 would actually fall on a Tuesday.

§ Vespers. An even more inspiring line appears earlier in that paragraph: “Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as beared ladies are to trapeze artists — another, sadder act in the same big show.” Isn’t that, though, precisely what’s changing these days? Today’s critic sits with the audience: she shows them how to enjoy the spectacle. At the risk of suggesting an improvement on Mr Gopnik’s observation, I should say that today’s critic is not to the writer as a coach is to the athlete, but to his companion in the gallery as a worldly aunt is to a curious undergraduate — or to another worldly aunt.