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Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces

Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces

by Wislawa Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh (Translator)

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Wislawa Szymborska's poems are admired around the world, and her unsparing vision, tireless wit, and deep sense of humanity are cherished by countless readers. Unknown to most of them, however, Szymborska also worked for several decades as a columnist, reviewing a wide variety of books under the unassuming title "Nonrequired Reading."

As readers of her poems


Wislawa Szymborska's poems are admired around the world, and her unsparing vision, tireless wit, and deep sense of humanity are cherished by countless readers. Unknown to most of them, however, Szymborska also worked for several decades as a columnist, reviewing a wide variety of books under the unassuming title "Nonrequired Reading."

As readers of her poems would expect, the short prose pieces collected here are anything but ordinary. Reflecting the author's own eclectic tastes and interests, the pretexts for these ruminations range from books on wallpapering, cooking, gardening, and yoga, to more lofty volumes on opera and world literature. Unpretentious yet incisive, these charming pieces are on a par with Szymborska's finest lyrics, tackling the same large and small questions with a wonderful curiosity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"She teaches us how the world defies and evades the names we give it."--Edward Hirsch, The New York Times Magazine

"[Szymborska] is unquestionably one of the great living European poets. She's accessible and deeply human and a joy--though it is a dark kind of joy--to read. . . . She is a poet to live with."--Robert Hass, The Washington Post Book World

"Wislawa Szymborska is not only one of the finest poets living today, but also one of the most readable."--Charles Simic

The New Yorker
Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, has lived in Kraków since 1931. In the late sixties, she began to write about books that had caught her eye, books like "The Enigmatic Lemming," "Accidents in the Home," and "The Historical Development of Clothing." These short pieces, collected in Nonrequired Reading translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, skitter over Szymborskan topics like bodybuilding, archeology, and the lottery of existence while referring, usually obliquely, to oppression and deprivation. Writing about a book called "Wallpapering Your Home," she observes, "Hobbies in their Polish variant are pastimes taken up not voluntarily, but by necessity," and then chronicles the setbacks and delays that thwart do-it-yourself projects under totalitarian regimes. Szymborska's deadpan sketches are whimsical and menacing; like her poems, they remind us that we spend our lives "a hairsbreadth from / an unfortunate coincidence."

If political conditions in Eastern Europe during the late sixties were bad for home improvement, they were good for literature. A scholarly study by Bozena Shallcross, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, examines the effect of Communist restrictions on travel on three other poets: Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and Joseph Brodsky. Through the Poet's Eye looks at the prose produced by the poets' epiphanic encounters with Western art. In front of Vermeer's "Girl Interrupted at Her Music," which hangs at the Frick, Zagajewski pulls up short. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I felt how reality stopped for an instant and froze in harmonious motionlessness. (Dana Goodyear)

Terry Teachout
Time for a pop quiz. what do these people have in common: Ivo Andric, Ivan Bunin, Grazia Deledda, Halldór Laxness and Harry Martinson? Yes, they're writers—this is, after all, a—but what else? If you're a veteran test-taker, you may have guessed that they all won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an award whose recipients, while not always unknown outside their native countries (Rudyard Kipling got one), are usually famous only for being utterly obscure. So don't be ashamed to admit that you've never read a line of the poetry of 1996's Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska—neither have I—and don't hold it against her that she won all that tax-free cash without your noticing. Her latest book, Nonrequired Reading, is the most engaging collection of literary essays to be published in a deep blue moon.

Szymborska writes a weekly column for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily newspaper, in which she "reviews" books that are too offbeat for full-length treatment. The pieces are quite short, generally just under two pages in this volume, and as often as not they make only glancing mention of the books that are their ostensible subjects. Can you imagine opening up your Sunday paper and finding a column like that? Much less one written by a poet? (Ozzy Osbourne, maybe.)

At the outset, Szymborska expected her book column to be more or less conventional in style and approach. "I thought I'd be writing real reviews," she says, "that is, in each case I'd describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others."

Before long, though, sherealized that she wasn't born to be a book reviewer, but something different—and, quite possibly, better: "I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it's just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations. Anyone who calls these pieces sketches will be correct. Anyone insisting on 'reviews' will incur my displeasure."

That's about the size of it, except to say that her choice of books is winsomely eccentric. You won't recognize many of them, either, though half a dozen or so passably familiar titles make the cut: Louis Armstrong's Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Richard Klein's Cigarettes Are Sublime, even a Polish translation of the diary of Samuel Pepys. For the most part, Szymborska stays well off the beaten path, instead allowing such books as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Vade Mecum of a Tourist on Foot, and The Art of Writing, or You and Your Character to tickle her fancy.

The results are something like a cross between a volume of familiar essays and a found poem, but the best way to suggest the subtle flavor of Nonrequired Reading is to give you a little taste. Here, for instance, is part of what Szymborska has to say about Hanna and Wojciech Mieszkowski's Repairing and Redecorating Your Apartment, a title that isn't likely to pop up in your neighborhood bookstore anytime soon: "You have to be born a handyman; you can't suddenly become one in midlife. As with ballet, you have to start practicing early; otherwise you'll never be a master. The handyman has had a flamboyant boyhood; he has learned how to balance on death's edge amid corrosive liquids, broken glass, short circuits, and experimental detonations. His parents are summoned to his school with above-normal frequency, where they discover that their son has rigged beneath the teacher's chair a device producing knocking from below." And do the Mieszkowskis have any useful hints on the one best way to rewire a light switch? Beats me—but who cares?

Or take this out-of-left-field meditation, inspired by a book with the unlikely title of The Enigmatic Lemming: "Birds are lunatics with no clue to their own lunacy. Instinct, which orders them to fly off every fall and resettle somewhere else that may be tens of thousands of miles away, only appears to be kindly and concerned with their well-being. If all that mattered were better food supplies in a more temperate climate, more than one species would end its protracted flight far sooner. But these demented creatures fly on, over mountains, where unexpected storms may smash them into cliffs, over seas, in which they may drown."

One of the rare classics to which Szymborska turns her attention in Nonrequired Reading is Michel de Montaigne's Essays. That gives the game away, for Szymborska, like Montaigne, writes about life by writing about herself, though she does it once removed, using books as the nominal occasions for her personal reflections: "I don't remember all the impressions prompted by my first reading of Montaigne. In any case, surprise wasn't among them. The existence of this work, the living voice with which it continues to speak—I took these for granted. What foolishness. Now the existence of anything good fills me with astonishment. And since the Essays are a good thing (even one of the very best that the human spirit has achieved), everything in them amazes me."

Having just made the belated acquaintance of Wislawa Szymborska, I'd say she partakes of more than a few of Montaigne's most attractive traits. Skeptical yet hopeful, intensely interested in the deceptively ordinary, she writes in the living voice of a person whose quirks and passions I feel I know as well as my own. I sincerely hope that her publisher quarries the back pages of Gazeta Wyborcza for at least another volume's worth of these lovely nonreviews. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read some Nobel Prize–winning poetry right away.
Publishers Weekly
Szymborska's Nobel Prize for literature in 1996 recognized her achievement in poetry. This collection of short prose responses ("I couldn't write reviews and didn't even want to") to 94 books proves a luminous and inspiring set of readerly reports-sharp, digressive, joyous-that provide insight into the poet's process of intake and synthesis. The pieces don't so much describe the books in question as take off from them, riffing and meditating on their contents. "The world is full of all sorts of sleeping powers-but how can you know in advance which may be safely released and which should be kept under lock at all costs?" she asks after reading Karel Capek's 1936 novel The War with the Newts, a sort of 1984 meets The Lord of the Flies. "One hundred minutes for your own beauty? Every day? You can't always indulge in such luxuries, my dear vain, dizzy, professionally employed, married friend with children," is her wry response to One Hundred Minutes for Beauty by Zofia Wedrowska, fourth edition, Warsaw: Sport I Turystyka, 1978. "We all know that a gesture repeated too often grows trite and loses its deeper meaning," she writes of Kathleen Keating's A Little Book of Hugs, but notes that "Miss Keating is an American, and enthusiasm comes to her more easily." Readers will find it comes just as easily to them via this varied collection by a keen reader and thinker. (Oct.) Forecast: While the conceit of a commonplace book of reader responses may be a little quirky, expect strong, explanatory national reviews (along with the diffuse interest in any Nobel laureate) to generate sales. This may very well be the season's sleeper hit among literati, particularly among non-regular readers of poetry who nevertheless recognize Szymborska's name. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Unknown to most Americans until she won the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, Polish writer Szymborska is primarily a poet. This collection of short prose pieces features book reviews she wrote while working as a columnist. Addressing a wide range of subjects, from the ancient Romans to the modern-day handyman, the reviews reflect her eclectic tastes and poetic sensibility. Unafraid to take an unpopular position, she, as a smoker, complains about the American penchant for demonizing anyone who cannot break the habit. In another piece, she reviews a book on early medical practices, pointing out that Louis XIV must have had an unusually resilient constitution to withstand the 2000 enemas and numerous bloodlettings to which he was subjected. On a weightier note, she tackles the question of why some civilizations succeed while others do not, given that humanity started out more or less the same. The skillful simplicity and lyric quality of these essays make them distinctive. With her poet's gift for compression, Szymborska captures large concepts and brilliantly reduces them to pithy, two-page essays. Strongly recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/02.]-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nobel laureate Szymborska (Miracle Fair, 2001, etc.) reprints nearly a hundred pithy pieces about books from her many years as a newspaper columnist in Poland.

But don’t call them reviews. "I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan," the poet writes. "Anyone insisting on ‘reviews’ will incur my displeasure." Fair enough. In these brief nonreviews, Szymborska uses her eclectic reading habits to comment on everything from witchcraft trials to wall calendars. She does not, indeed, say much about the quality of the books at hand, nor does she often regurgitate or recommend. What she does do is allow her reading to jump-start her philosopher’s mind, her humorist’s imagination, and her poet’s pen. Irony abounds. In a piece about scientists, she quips, "From time to time people do appear who have a particularly strong resistance to obvious facts." Along the way she takes on Carl Jung (didn’t he realize that people were telling him stories, not dreams?), beauty-obsessed women, deer hunters, biographers, autobiographers, poets overly interested in prosody, extraterrestrials, wax museums, Disney, tyrants’ abuses of history, anti-smokers (she’s a proud puffer), nudity, and home repair. Here are piquant disquisitions on the mysteries of talent (Hitchcock is her exemplar), on the poetry of Czelaw Milosz (which she greatly appreciates), on the absurdities of pseudo-science. She admires Thomas Mann and Samuel Pepys but mistrusts Dale Carnegie, wonders about the daily lives of Neanderthals, expatiates on the beauties of Polish birds and Andersen’s fairy tales, speculates about the meaning of life and death to a paramecium, worries about violence and about the psychological demands wemake of our dogs. She recognizes that home-improvement books are wasted on the practically challenged, constructs a hilarious verbal family tree of Cleopatra, and observes that the three pictographs forming the word "peace" in Chinese are "already a microscopic poem."

Glorious distillations of a capacious mind and heart.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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First Edition
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Read an Excerpt

Absent-Minded Professors

Anecdotes about great people make for bracing reading. All right, the reader thinks, so I didn't discover chloroform, but I wasn't the worst student in my class, as Liebig was. Of course I wasn't the first to find salvarsan, but at least I'm not as scatterbrained as Ehrlich, who wrote letters to himself. Mendeleev may be light-years ahead of me as far as the elements go, but I'm far more restrained and better groomed regarding hair. And did I ever forget to show up at my own wedding like Pasteur? Or lock the sugar bowl up to keep my wife out, like Laplace? By comparison with such scientists, we do indeed feel slightly more reasonable, better bred, and perhaps even higher-minded as regards daily living. Moreover, from our vantage point, we know which scientist was right and which was shamefully mistaken. How innocuous someone like Pettenhoffer, for example, seems to us today! Pettenhoffer was a doctor who ferociously battled the findings on bacteria's pathogenetic powers. When Koch discovered the comma bacillus of cholera, Pettenhoffer publicly swallowed a whole testtubeful of these unpleasant microbes in order to demonstrate that the bacteriologists, with Koch at their helm, were dangerous mythomaniacs. This anecdote gains particular luster from the fact that nothing happened to Pettenhoffer. He kept his health and scornfully flaunted his triumph until the end of his days. Why he wasn't infected remains a mystery for medicine. But not for psychology. From time to time people do appear who have a particularly strong resistance to obvious facts. Oh, how pleasant and honorable not to be a Pettenhoffer!

Scientists in Anecdotes by Waclaw Golebowiez, second edition, Warsaw: Wiedza Powszechna, 1968.

Copyright © 2002 by Harcourt, Inc.

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Meet the Author

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA (1923–2012) was born in Poland and worked as a poetry editor, translator, and columnist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.

CLARE CAVANAGH, professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Northwestern, has received a PEN Translation Award for her work, with Stanislaw Baranczak, on Szymborska's poetry.


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