Top positive review
A love story, for a writer, but ultimately for reading
on June 27, 2012
Ben Dolnick comes from a bookish family, wrote the coming of age Zoology, and according to his publisher has worked as a "zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo, a bookseller, a research assistant in an immunology lab, and a tutor." Alice Munro is a Canadian short-story writer, the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, a three-time winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction, and a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize; she is as Cynthia Ozick puts it, "our Chekhov."
Dolnick developed a deep admiration for Ozick despite, perhaps common in many love affairs, he once disliked her; his reasons:
"- she often published stories in the New Yorker, and possibly wrote nothing but stories.
- many of her book titles featured words like "Love" and "Women."
- she was Canadian.
- her book-covers were illustrated with moody, purplish-tinted scenes of women lounging on beds or gazing thoughtfully out of windows.
- the first page of the first story in the only book of hers I owned described a woman with teeth 'crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument."
Dolnick advances these reasons to "demonstrate my tendency toward under-informed and over-fervent dismissals, but also because if I'm going to have any success in arguing that the work of Alice Munro can make your life tangibly happier and better, I need first to address the various reasons you might have for dismissing her."
Dolnick does a wonderful job of proving just how important Munro was, and is, in his life, and along the way describes in what seemed to me an empathetic way how he (and I) dismiss some authors, adore others, reflect on those conclusions, and sometimes just change our minds. Rarely the authors change; much more often Dolnick (and I) changed, sometimes through maturation of understanding, sometimes in even more fundamental ways.
Years ago I had a crush on Robert Frost -- still do for that matter -- and I sent off a book of his collected poems with a request for an autograph, together with a self addressed postage paid envelope for its return. A week later the book was in my mail box, not only signed, but with a little poem as its inscription:
"To Robert Ross
From Robert Frost"
From time to time I take out that book and admire the signature and "my" poem, but very soon turn to the more poetry and lose myself in his words and his ideas.
Dolnick, at the end of his essay does just that with Munro. After analyzing her work, after agonizing about writing and receiving fan letters, after speculating about her appearance and her thoughts, he writes:
"I have a feeling, though ... that the proper act of reverence and gratitude might be a great deal simpler than electing her or befriending her. I could, for a hundredth, and then a thousandth time, read her."
That is the point for this reader: the books at the end of the day are what really matter. I thank Ben Dolnick for reminding me of that truth.
Robert C. Ross