Sunday, March 06, 2005

How the weather was

Roger Kahn's new book is an anthology of his writing, some of it excerpts from his books, some of it magazine articles, all of it good. It could be called The Roger Kahn Reader or The Almost Portable Roger Kahn. Instead it's called Beyond the Boys of Summer, a title chosen to remind potential buyers of his most famous book and to suggest that there's been more to Kahn's career than nostalgia for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But I already knew that. I'd read just about everything that's in this book before there was this book, except for the introductions and the excerpts from his novels. Probably everybody else who was in Ariel Books in New Paltz last night to hear him read and reminisce had read as much, or nearly as much, of Kahn's work as I have. You read some, you're going to read more. And I wish we all could have gone out for a beer together afterwards so that I could've started an argument over which is his best book.

I don't think it's The Boys of Summer.

His best book, I think, is A Flame of Pure Fire, his biography of Jack Dempsey.

My favorite book by him though is called How the Weather Was, a previous collection of his writing, mostly essays and articles, that I read when I was 14. I still think of that as the best titled book in the world, even though I know that's the part of me that's still 14 and just finishing up his first grown up book of non-fiction talking.

But my 14 year old self must have known a few things, because other books he read at that age still don't excite him when I ask for his literary opinion.

I remember though being disappointed when I started reading it, because I was expecting a book about baseball. I had decided to read it as a warm up to The Boys of Summer, which I knew my father had loved and which therefore I must have thought of as a book that required my father's wisdom, experience, maturity, and love of the Brooklyn Dodgers to understand and appreciate. So I was trying to educate myself to get ready to read the book I really wanted to read when I picked up How the Weather Was.

If I'd known anything at the time I might have been warned by the title that something more than baseball was the subject. I might have recognized that Kahn had taken his title from Hemingway.

All good books [Hemingway said] are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstacy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

At any rate, when I was done I didn't think of Roger Kahn as a sportswriter, at least not only a sportswriter, and nothing I've read by him since has convinced me I was wrong. So although it's probable that I wasn't the most well-read Kahn fan in the room last night, I'll bet I was one of only a few who wasn't suprirsed when Kahn began his reading last night not with talking about the Dodgers or his friend Jackie Robinson or even about Jack Dempsey. He started off talking about Robert Frost.

Which is to say that he started off talking about writing.

Long time ago, Kahn met and got to be friendly with Robert Frost. He wrote about some of their conversations and Frost never minded what he wrote. He had only one request, that Kahn not write about things Frost said about other poets.

Kahn wanted to know why not.

"Beause I'm a poet not a critic," Frost said.

Everything else was on the record.

Last night Kahn went back and forth easily from reading to talking off the cuff and it was hard to tell when he was doing one or other. I never caught him looking down at the page for more than a few seconds at a time. He acted stories out too, stepping away from the lectern to give himself stage room, and did the different voices. So I was surprised to find in the intro to his book that this story about Frost speaking to some students appears word for word as Kahn told it in the bookstore last night. I thought he was improvising.

I once watched Robert Frost, by nature a friendly sort, virtually dismember an overly aggressive student who wanted to know what a particular poem meant.

"It means what it says." [Kahn did Frost as a growling dog.]

"Well," the student said, "I know what it means to me but I don't know what it means to you."

"Maybe I don't want you to."

"Could you explain the poem please?"

"Do you want me to state it in worse English?"

Frost, Kahn concluded, "Left his ardent idolater distraught but also perhaps with a first clue as to how writers function and think. Most writers look on their work as Frost did. It means what it says. As the wise comedian Fred Allen once put it, 'If you have to explain a joke, don't.'"

Kahn recently taught a class at SUNY New Paltz and he told us about how on the first day of class he had brought up Ernest Hemingway and been startled that the name met with a lot of blank stares. When he tried to tell them about who Hemingway was and in mentioning For Whom the Bell Tolls he explained that the title came from a sermon by John Donne he was faced with a whole lot more blank stares.

Kahn didn't tell this story to tell us how much dumber than all us grown ups 18 and 19 year olds are. He told it to brag. He was proud. He said he told the class, "Someday, many years from now, you're going to remember with joy that you first heard the names Ernest Hemingway and John Donne in a class at SUNY New Paltz."

Since the class ended he's been receiving emails and letters from former students asking him what else they should read. "Should I read this guy? How about this book? What other books should I be reading now?"

Kahn is a little dapper elf, and the whole half of his face under his long nose is an elfin grin. The grin got bigger as he said that and you could see that he was pleased with himself. And why not? He was proud of the fact that he had put John Donne and Ernest Hemingway into the heads of a couple dozen young people. He might have been a little bit sneakily vain that in years to come that the name Roger Kahn would be in their heads alongside the other two, but he didn't care. He cared that he'd given them some things to read for the rest of their lives.


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