Mark Athitakis Newsletter #10

Libraries, essays, pettiness.

Front Matter

It’s rare for me to watch movies these days---work, parenting, and offline reading have all taken priority for a long time now. This disappoints me a little, as somebody who once successfully made it through the better part of a year watching a movie a day; somewhere in the bowels of the early-oughts internet is a blog where I endeavored to watch every Criterion Collection film, in order, by spine number. (I think I got up to Diary of a Chambermaid.)  

I came across Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, while feeling guilty about my under-used Kanopy account. The 3.5-hour run time is daunting, but I dove in and found it one of the most pleasurable movie experiences I’ve had in ages. So much of what I (we?) tend to watch these days is about compression---comedians and pundits who are cramming in as many jokes, zingers, and bon mots per minute, as if terrified we’ll pull away if we haven’t heard a sick burn in the past 15 seconds. Ex Libris is captivating because it has enough confidence in its viewers and its subject---which is, in itself, attention---that it rewards watching it.

I recognize that this has been Wiseman’s longstanding approach as a documentarian---long takes, no music or narration. But it’s not necessarily an easy strategy to warm up to, and at times Wiseman has made it actively difficult. (The first Wiseman film I watched was Titticut Follies, his documentary about a mental asylum, which is honorably lacking in anything that feels exploitative but still feels invasive to watch all the same.) Ex Libris succeeds structurally because it cuts across all the strata of the NYPL system---from board members to circulation staffers, big-name writers at the flagship library (Richard Dawkins, Ta-Nehisi Coates) to a job fair at a branch. (I haven’t witnessed somebody do a worse job pitching his employer than the U.S. Border Patrol agent does here.) But what it’s mainly about---or what I kept looking for in those long shots---is people trying to think through the answers to things, responding to experience.

That cuts across different strata too---from Yusef Komunyakaa wrestling with the question of whether he’s a political poet to kids in coding class. But Wiseman collapses those strata, makes all of those experiences seem similar, and similarly valuable. He stretches out the takes, lets us spend real time at each location and event he hopscotches to, not privileging any one in particular. By doing so, he reminds us that curiosity is a universal quality. Everybody has it, and it surfaces with reassuring ease if they’re given the opportunity to express it, or experience it. Wiseman is obviously a fan of the NYPL, which has a wealth of programming to document---the film makes no mention of the contretemps about five years ago over a now-defunct plan to move many of the books out of the flagship library. But the sustaining energy of the film is in people of all types trying to satisfy their interests in something, or having their eyes light up when they find themselves engrossed in something they didn’t know they cared about. Or just finding a place to rest their eyes after plainly thinking about too many things.

People still equate “library” with “a place to check out books,” which is why you occasionally get doofy op-eds like the one that set the internet aflame a few months back about how Amazon should just take over the whole racket. But it’s still a little funny that while there are a lot of writers in Ex Libris, isn’t much in the film about books per se---there are few shots of people browsing stacks or curling up with books. (Though there’s a funny moment when a help-desk worker gently informs a caller about having hit their 50-book limit.) Perhaps that’s the thing that’s hardest to visualize. Writers and musicians can capture our imaginations that are easy to see. The moment of learning something from a librarian or a computer program---sure. But a book itself? We’d need a much longer movie.

What I’m Reading, Book Dept.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction is a loving mess---a history and study of the essay that gets impatient with history and scholarship because (he argues) the essay is wrapped up in so much subjectivity that attempts to pin it down will only prompt it to wriggle away. So there’s a lot about Montaigne and Elizabeth Hardwick and Virginia Woolf and Maggie Nelson and other major figures in the form, but there’s also a lot about Brian Dillon---about his depression, his work, and how the fragmentary nature of our thought process make the essay form both intimate and frustrating. “I like the idea of the essay as a kind of conglomerate,” he writes. “An aggregate either of diverse materials or disparate ways of saying the same or similar things.” As somebody who comes across way too many overhyped “must-read” essays that are functionally memoir that’s dressed up as “lyrical” because it bounces personal trauma off Thoreau quotes or something, I wouldn’t mind a more precise definition, or a better standard. But Dillon’s looseness is an informed one---a model of the very thing it discusses.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Matt Dinan makes the case for civil-discourse-as-not-tone-policing. Dominic Green attempts to recover Saul Bellow’s late-period reputation with a defense of Mr. Sammler’s Planet; not entirely persuasive (contempt is a great subject for fiction, but laying it at the feet of women and African-Americans alongside your proclaimed intellectual lessers is still off-putting to me), but worth reading. James Wood’s treatment of Olga Tokarczuk’s tricky, engrossing novel, Flights, is illuminating and critical in the right places. A history of pettiness, from Lord Byron’s flouting a rule about pet dogs by owning a pet bear to Michael Crichton exacting his revenge on a critic, inventing the small-penis defense in the process.

End Notes

A jittery song for jittery times. “The mind is in check / The check is the force / The forces at work / The forces at work…”

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.