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John Updike's power of literary nostalgia

May 27, 2009 |  3:29 pm


Although the world lost John Updike in January, the publishing world is continuing to produce a steady output of new books by the great American scrivener. Alfred A. Knopf published "Endpoint: And Other Poems" last month and will publish a collection of his stories, "My Father's Tears: And Other Stories" next month.

But it's the little essay by him in "Burn This Book," edited by Toni Morrison and that we reviewed on Sunday, that deserves some attention here. Originally published in his collection "Picked-Up Pieces," the essay "Why Write?" is an anthem of sorts, and the following passage might be treated as an encouraging word for all you writers out there when you're in need of one:

Why write? As soon ask, why rivet? Because a number of personal accidents drifts us toward the occupation of riveter, which preexists, and, most importantly, the riveting gun exists, and we love it.

Think of a pencil. What a quiet, nimble, slender, and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steamroller with no weight, a palace at no cost. All children are alive to the spell of pencil and crayons, of making something, as it were, from nothing; a few children never move out from under this spell, and try to become artists. I was once a rapturous child drawing at the dining-room table, under a stained-glass chandelier that sat like a hat on the swollen orb of my excitement.

Stumbling upon such lovely insights gives the illusion that Updike is still with us and still writing -- the experience feels similar to the way astronomers say light reaches us from a star that supernova'd years ago.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo credit: Davis Freeman