The Details of What It Feels to Be Alive

Dwight Garner and Jonathan Galassi

In Conversation

Long before he became one of the most renowned literary critics of our time, Dwight Garner started the practice of keeping a ‘commonplace book’ of literary quotations that spoke to him. His new book, Garner’s Quotationsis a reflection of that lifelong attention—and celebration—of language. In conversation with his editor, Jonathan Galassi, Garner reveals the first book he ever reviewed, unites the joys of reading and eating, ponders the idea of commonplace book as crypto-autobiography, and enlightens us that quotes in any good piece of writing should be “the salt or spice in your guacamole, not the pit.”

Jonathan Galassi: I can imagine a commonplace book is a book reviewer’s guilty pleasure or inevitable hobby. How I wish I’d had the foresight to do something similar myself—but I’m far too lazy, unfortunately. What was the first book you reviewed, and when, and where? And when did you start jotting down lines you didn’t want to—or couldn’t—forget?

Dwight Garner: I started writing down lines in high school, long before I reviewed my first book. The early lines I wrote down were terrible. When you’re young and pretentious you’re attracted to deep heavy truths, Erich Segal kind of power ballad things. (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” Segal wrote in Love Story—the least felicitous quote of all time.) Have you ever read a book on Kindle, where they let you see the most underlined passages? Even in excellent novels these passages are generally so soggy and predictable that they annihilate your faith in humanity. Before I wised up, I too seized upon lines that felt “important” but had a flatulent aroma. The worst of Steinbeck and Salinger, etc.

The first book I reviewed, I’m pretty certain, was a novel called Providence by Geoffrey Wolff, the brother of Tobias Wolff. He’d previously written a very good memoir called The Duke of Deception. This was in 1985. I was a sophomore in college. I told the owner of the Vermont Bookshop, in downtown Middlebury, Vermont, that I planned to start reviewing books in the Middlebury College newspaper, where I was an editor. He said, “Well, pick any book you want and as long as you review it, it’s free.” I think I’ve stuck with criticism for the free books.

JG: I guess a commonplace book has to be a kind of crypto-autobiography. Wasn’t it Walter Benjamin who said the ideal book would be made entirely of quotations? I guess you could argue that literature is all about quotation, anyway, appropriating and recycling what has already been said. When you look at Garner’s Quotations, whom do you see?

DG: Well, I guess this book is an autobiography of a sort, though one that’s skewed to the side of my personality that loves absurdity, parody, gin, wordplay, late nights, bullshit reduction and spareribs. (Also self-loathing.) I did this on purpose. I find most books of quotation, and commonplace books, a bit on the dull and worthy side. A penny saved is a penny earned, and all that. I walk into bookstores and they’re selling T-shirts and coffee mugs with literary quotes on them, and I think to myself, surely you can find better quotes than that. I’d like this book to insert some new lines into common usage. I do think of this as a serious book, in its way–wit and ideas walk hand in hand. I’ll admit I worry about the ten-year-old who brings this book home from the library, looking for a quote for a social studies paper, and stumbles upon some of the rougher material. 

JG: Well, it was that roughness, the surprising frankness of it, that spoke to me. It kind of drew back the curtain between what’s on the page, or the screen, and what we say, to each other, and ourselves. It’s fresh, in both senses of the word, and that’s . . . refreshing. One of the things I’ve always admired about your reviews is their irreverence, along with the immediacy of their appreciation.

DG: Thanks for that. I too sense a disconnect between what goes on in good books and how critics tend to talk about them. We’ve grown used to generalizations like, I don’t know, “This novel is a vital commentary on modern courtship rituals,” or similar stuff – which you might also say about any episode of The Bachelor. (I’m not completely exempting myself from committing these generalizations, by the way.) When I’m reading, I have a pretty dire case of what Tina Brown, in her The Vanity Fair Diaries, calls “observational greed.” I like writers who attend to the grit of experience and let me in on the details of what it feels like to be alive. You’re right—the word for that is frankness.  

JG: Another thing I can’t help noticing in your book is how much food means to you (and, full disclosure, you’re going to be writing about it for us). What’s the connection, in your view, between reading and other forms of ingestion?

DG: Reading and eating have always gone hand-in-hand for me. I didn’t come from a literary or particularly culinary family, so I had to learn about the finer points of each on my own. When I was young I was a soft kid, “husky” in the department store lingo, a brown-eyed boy with chafing thighs, because I ate while I read. I’d come home from school and gather a stack of magazines and newspapers and books, and then I’d then go into the kitchen and return with a sandwich and a vertiginous pile of corn chips and a sweet drink made from powder mix. This was my daily afternoon solace. I’d read for hours this way, belly-down on the living room carpet. It was important that the food not run out before the reading matter did.

Food in literature–what Elizabeth Hardwick, writing about Mary McCarthy, called “drama of consumption”–has always made me turn the pages more briskly. I’ve also been a zealous consumer of food literature (cookbooks, magazines, chef’s memoirs, culinary histories), leaping upon these things like a flying squirrel on a plump rolling acorn. These days everyone’s a foodie. But I sensed long ago on that if you cared about being alive, if you paid attention to things, reading and eating were, after sex, the two great things.

JG: Leafing through your Quotations—and I do think that’s the way to read them—I keep wondering how these gems fit into the books they come from, and whether they’re juicier on their own or in the flow of their contexts. Obviously they stood out for you as you read, but do you think they have a special frisson when they’re alone on the page–not to mention the way they follow on each other, rat-a-tat, like grapeshot?

DG: Well, everything here is something I loved in its original context. Plucking the lines out for my book was a way of isolating them, presenting them against a nuclear white background, as if they suddenly got to be in a Richard Avedon photograph. (Nicholson Baker said somewhere that everything, even a rusty old nail, looks better against an uncluttered white background.) I tried to make the quotes chime and sometimes clash in this book. I wanted the generations to speak to one another–Zola on cheese, for example, and then Lorrie Moore on cheese, then T.S. Eliot and Aravind Adiga and Michael Chabon.

JG: You’ve been doing this for forty years. Do you have an estimate of how many quotations you have squirreled away? I want to see them!

DG: I fear I am a disgusting hoarder. I keep my selections under headings – “language,” “evil,” “shyness,” “psychotherapy,” “editors,” “social class,” “war,” “illness,” “shit,” “conversation,” “comics,” “masturbation,” “drinking,” “fame,” “silence,” “hate,” “journalism,” “letters,” “money,” “suicide,” “sports,” “New York City,” “vomiting,” “revenge,” “movies,” you name it – and under some of these headings the quotes are lengthy. The two documents I keep them on, A-M, N-Z, would make for a War and Peace-size volume. Mine is a terribly nerdy habit, I suppose, but the point is to pick only the freshest and wildest things; I avoid anything that feels canned or overused. I practically ban Lincoln, Wilde, Tocqueville, Woody Allen, Einstein and (the great) Fran Lebowitz, because their lines have been used to death.  

You mentioned above that I’m writing a book about food and literature. The “food” section of my notes was about 60 pages long, and I’ve recently done some further reading, and it’s now closer to 200 pages. The trick of course is not to overuse this material in your everyday writing. The best users of quotes drop them in as with an eyedropper. They’re thickening agents that a reader should barely notice. If they stand out as the best thing in your essay, then you are, as a writer, in trouble. You want them to be the salt or spice in your guacamole, not the pit.  

Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times and was previously the senior editor of The New York Times Book Review. His essays and criticism have also appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, Slate, and elsewhere.

Jonathan Galassi is the President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.