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City Desk

Interstate Gleanings

by Richard Brookhiser

I spend three hours a week on the bus that takes me from city to country and back.

The urban terminus was spiffed up in Giuliani time but, given the economics of travel, it still serves the young, the poor, the stingy second-homer, and the doughtiest of commuters. The country terminus serves the little college town whose 17th-century core has been swallowed by bars and U.N. fast food (gyros, kebabs, tamales, sushi, pizza). Jack and Jane Kerouacs ride back and forth, in search of biking, hiking, hooking up, and studying.

I use my trips for writing and reading. Every bus is a quiet car. The company shushes cell phones and beeping game players. One delinquent rider who crossed the line from noisiness to belligerence was let off at the Thruway toll booth (there is a bleak destination). The motion and thrum of a long-haul bus are soothing. The big windows refresh the eye with even better views than a train’s, and the mild climate of upstate shuffles the seasons like the Georgics of Virgil (just now everything is bright blazing green). I have written parts of a few books and of many articles, including this one, on the bus.

Hard reading is even harder in motion. Or is it that hard reading has become too hard for me anywhere? In college I read Kant, which now strikes me as impossible. Happily there is a size limit imposed by my hand and my coat pocket. I am not going to carry a book that does not sit easily in the one or fit securely in the other. The small book should be made of short pieces. They give way before the inevitable distractions of the road — the accident, the watchful hawk, the burst of light through the cloud — then claim the mind again before the next intrusion.

One good bus read is the Greek Anthology. My wife took a year of Greek in college, and suffered (a mnemonic: Some men have many stones, but we have lots of hair), but she has a good collection of translations. The Greek Anthology is a collection of epigrams, covering almost two millennia and a host of subjects: epitaphs, beat-downs, propositions, laments. I once sent a young poet an epitaph on a dog. There must have been heavy weather on the other end; why should I care about some old dog? came the answer. Because we love them, they love us, and their lives aren’t much shorter than ours?

One book of Kerouac’s is another good fellow traveler. I came of age after he had faded and before he was revived. Now he is an Old Master; Johnny Depp owns his typewriter. His prose is erratic: On the Road is one long flat tire. But he excelled at the haiku, as I discovered when I picked up Book of Haikus (edited by Regina Weinreich). Kerouac came of age in a post-war boho vogue of things Asian. He freed himself from 5-7-5 syllable counting: Most of his haikus have three lines, but the lengths fall as they may. He glimpses things and conjoins them, as his Japanese models do:

This July evening
A large frog
On my doorsill.

Useless! Useless!
– heavy rain driving
Into the sea.

But for all his earnest homemade Buddhism he never loses all-American sass.

Walking on water wasn’t
built in a day.

The Analects of Confucius are real orientalia. Simon Leys, who translated my edition, annotates with passion; in a translator, go for love and hope for precision. The Analects are 20 chapters of sayings and vignettes compiled by Confucius’s disciples. Together they form a system, almost a civilization, which can seem deeply wise — “He is straight: things work out by themselves without his having to issue orders. He is not straight: he has to multiply orders, which are not being followed anyway” — or deeply strange: One must mourn one’s parents for three years. What I glean from it is the impress of a personality. “The Master said: ‘Yan Hui [a disciple] is of no help to me: whatever I say pleases him.’” “The Master said: ‘The fact remains that I have never seen a man who loved virtue as much as sex.’” I love that the fact remains: The Master must have been puzzling over that for a while.

Now I am breaking my anti-tome rule with the Essays of Montaigne. The Penguin edition is practically a cube, over 1,300 pages long, and even at that the font is tiny. I wanted to read Montaigne because I never had — one of the benefits of a bad education is the constant pleasure of discovery — and because even though the book is long most of the essays are short. But Montaigne takes a long time — a very long time — to warm up. He is timid and pedantic. He says his subject is himself, but he defends every thought with a SEAL team of quotations, most of them Latin. Often the effort of penetrating them is hardly worth it. The famous essay on cannibals (hey, they’re as good as we are!) is the template for clever high-school students everywhere, except where cannibalism and other barbarities are still practiced.

Four hundred pages in I hit a good one: “On Practice.” The real subject is dying, for which there is no practice: “We are all apprentices when it comes to that.” But Montaigne analyzes an accident in which he came close, thrown over the head of his horse onto the road, where he lay “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” Hours later consciousness returned, but it was faint and remote: “Empty acts of apparent thinking. . . . I felt myself oozing away . . .” We won’t mind the run-up to death, he concludes, because in most cases we will be past feeling, or caring.

The upstate terminus is signaled by apple orchards and a billboard for a dude ranch. The city terminus is signaled by New Jersey. Time to put the books away.

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