Book Review: Table Talk
edited by Wendy Lesser, Jennifer Zahrt, and Mimi Chubb
Ten years after Wendy Lesser founded The Threepenny Review in 1980, book critic Leonard Michaels came up with the idea of a regular feature called “Table Talk,” a series of short 1000-word literary and arts-related ruminations designed to offset the journal’s longer and more involved main pieces. “Table Talk” was a success in the only way success is meaningful for such a feature: it brought out the best in its contributors. Over the years, some bright little gems have appeared under its title, and now the folks at Counterpoint have had the inspired and very welcome idea of collecting a wide selection of “Table Talk” in a book.
Table Talk from the Threepenny Review does an excellent job of capturing what deputy editor and long-time contributor Mimi Chubb refers to as the “pleasurable democracy” of Table Talk, “where a young, unknown writer might appear alongside an older, famous writer – and where, unless you glanced ahead, you might not necessarily guess which was which until you reached the italicized name at the end.”
The selection of pieces on offer here has something to intrigue virtually any curious reader, from Millicent Dillon on chemist-turned-painter Burgess Collins to Thomas Laqueur’s 2002 piece about Washington’s National Museum of Health and Medicine to Tim Savinar on collecting pennies to Sven Birkerts “on getting a stray cat out of his house.” There are dozens of lighthearted pieces, like Dwight Garner’s 1997 riff on Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” in which the life-long book hoarder contemplates the reverse – packing and moving his library:
Happy as we were to be leaving [their rapidly-gentrifying Park Slop neighborhood], it can be easy to forget, if you’re a book person who hasn’t moved for a few years, how pulverizingly awful an adventure this can be. (There’s similar delusion involved when a mother convinces herself that birthing that second child will be no sweat.) And generally you have to march along this heavy trail alone; close friends – some still stooped from your last move – mysteriously quite returning your phone calls. If reading is a solitary activity, so too is lugging the aftermath around.
Clifford Thompson writes on the joys of keeping a personal notebook; Michael Ryan writes about word-order in English; Claire Messud turns in a lovely 1997 meditation on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and its many digressions:
For Sterne, as for other eighteenth-century novelists, digression was crucial: their form was picaresque, and deviation gave invigorating pause to its relentless linearity. For Proust, in whose precocious literary modernity the linear had all but dissolved, deviation took the place of plot: for him, as for Henry James or Virginia Woolf, it was, far more than a narrative device, a route to essence.
One of the most moving Table Talks in this collection is Michael Gorra’s thought-provoking 1998 piece on reading and later teaching Jane Austen’s Emma, encountering students who seem far more self-possessed than he himself was when he first read the book:
I taught Emma badly for years precisely because it was so crucial a part of my own formation as a reader. My experience of it had been so powerful that I couldn’t separate those days on a D. C. bus from the book itself, and maybe the fact that I now can marks a kind of maturation, not as a reader this time, but as a teacher. I’m not sorry I was so naive when I met this book, that I made such exhilarating mistakes when I was on my own for the first time in a great city; and at times I still wish that some of my students were unformed enough to do so as well. But they will have that experience with other novels, perhaps, and in the meantime how wonderfully disconcerting it feels to find that after twenty years, Emma still defines me: that it has gone on reading me, telling me who I am and how I’ve changed, and how much I will always have to learn.
It’s that particular mix of confession and performance piece that has always characterized Table Talk, and it fills this collection with precious bits, saving – for a little while – the ephemera of the back issue pile from the oblivion reserved for endless reams of “Talk of the Town” and the like.