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From Last Letter to a Reader, an essay collection, which will be published in May by And Other Stories.

I have my own way of assessing the worth of a book—not just a so-called work of literature but any sort of book or, for that matter, any piece of music or any so-called work of art. I could say in simple terms that I judge the worth of a book according to the length of time during which the book stays in my mind, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to explain how the reading of a book and the remembering of a book are not for me what they seem to be for many others.

James Joyce, so I once read, was often irritated by someone’s reporting that he or she had just read a most impressive book. The person so impressed would begin to explain the impressive subject matter of the book, but Joyce could not tolerate this. He wanted to learn what the book truly comprised; he wanted the enthused reader to quote from the text of the book some of the more impressive sentences or paragraphs. This, of course, few enthused readers are able to do. I myself am seldom able to do it, but at least I learned long ago not to claim that I was talking about a book when what I was talking about were my memories or my impressions or my fantasies.

Sometimes an impressive sentence or two will stay with me for long afterward. I have not looked into Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, for fifty-three years, but I can recall a sentence that still comes to me sometimes and works its strange effect on me: a simple sentence spoken by Captain Ahab not long before the final pursuit of the white whale. “They are making hay in the meadows of the Andes, Mr. Starbuck.” And if someone should ever inform me that those are not the exact words of the text, I’ll be pleased rather than abashed—pleased that I’ve adapted a fictional text for the best of all purposes: to enrich an actual life.

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January 2022

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