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Summer reading: Daniel Nester on 'Milosz’s ABCs'

June 9, 2010 |  7:05 am


As summer gets underway, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles, being released in time for summer 2010. At Jacket Copy, we're asking writers and other bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past.

Daniel Nester, a poet, journalist, essayist and teacher, is the author, most recently, of "How to Be Inappropriate."

Jacket Copy: Do you have a specific memory of reading a book or books during summer? What's the title/author?

Daniel Nester: One that sticks out in my mind is reading "Milosz’s ABCs" by Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. According to the back cover, this is an “ABC book,” which is a Polish genre. "Milosz's ABCs" includes 100-plus entries on everything from “American Poetry” to “Zagorski, Stefan.”

JC: What year was it? How old were you?

DN: August 2001. I was 32.

JC: Where were you?

DN: I read it on my honeymoon in Ireland. I thought it would be a perfect book for the plane trip out, since it looked like I could stop and start and skip around, so I packed it. I ended up reading it straight through.

JC: What about the book was significant to you then?

DN: This will sound obvious, but reading this book offered the possibility of writing small things that would add up to a larger work that is more than the sum of its parts. I was just about tapped-out writing poems and was thinking of writing prose, but didn’t want to let go of writing in self-contained chunks. I still love how Milosz uses this commonplace-style book format to write about concepts in entries such as “Nature” and “Money,” as well as obscure Polish political and cultural matters.

JC: Have you re-read it? Has it changed at all for you?

DN: I did re-read the book around 2006, when I was putting together a packet of readings from books that use this alphabetical design, such as Carlos Fuentes’ "This I Believe," Amy Krause Rosenthal’s "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life," Ezra Pound’s "ABC of Reading." I think Milosz’s title holds up, certainly for fans of his poetry.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

DN: I have not been back to Ireland. Looking through my copy now, I see that there’s an entry on “Terror,” where he talks about his experience in the Second World War, moving from Wilno to Warsaw and living under German occupation. Terror, “the chief inhabitant of Europe in the twentieth century,” he writes, “has not yet undergone extensive analysis.” I am sure that had I read this book a month later, when I heard the planes hit the World Trade Center towers from our apartment in Brooklyn, I would have had a much different reading experience.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Daniel Nester. Credit: Joe Putrock

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