© 2010 Whitney Smith
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July 6: Autobiography as caviar Selznick, Anne Lindbergh & Dr. Johnson — Touching books



I am almost finished what could be one of the most rewarding books I've ever read, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, edited by John Lahr. (I'll have more to say about it when I'm done in a few days.) Tynan was a luminous theatre critic and journalist, perhaps most famous for conceiving the extremely successful Oh! Calcutta!, which made him very little money (much of the book is about his struggles withy money, which I can surely relate to). British playwright David Hare calls Tynan a humanist dandy, which is accurate and fair — that is, assuming we're using the right definition of humanist. there seems to be many.

(Actually, this might make a good party game: defining arguable words, like humanist, that can be understood in a few different ways, and that point up the mindset of the definer, like socialism and capitalism; however words like those might wreck the party. People would be at each other’s throats, which also could be the point of the game. Anything to turn a party around, I say.)

Socialism and capitalism are two words that Tynan, a passionate and articulate Leftie, has led me to think about more carefully since reading his book, which is one of its rewards.

My infatuation with this book can be understood in the following context: I adore non-fiction books composed of serial autobiog notations. Memo from David O. Selznick, composed entirely of his memos to colleague. Gone With the Wind was Selznick's movie. (At the time I was reading it, my wife at the time, Suzette Couture, was hooked on the diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the pilot, who wrote about fifteen books. We were in our twenties and I guess other people's lives, eloquently put, were modeling something for us.)

On that note, today I bought a small two-volume set of The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1945) one of my desert island books, read when I was driving taxi in my twenties to put myself through (avoiding a real job) a wide program of music lessons. The volumes are the Everyman's Library edition, about the size of a Filofax, in pristine condition with rose cloth covers covered with clean cellophane wrappers (like for library books, but these are not), for £5, with an index. (People who publish non-fiction books without indexes should be, at the least, ostracized.) My love of the physical form of worthy books is deeply nourished by the book-loving culture of England and the vast number of used book shops.

Come to think of it, it was reading about Johnson's passion for London that I came to understand people were talking about. Then, when I went on tour with Toronto's Video Cabaret to play at the ICA in London in 1979, my third time in the city, I started to get why and how great cities are alluring.It's partly a function of having too much to take in, and that the environment, perhaps like wilderness, is beautiful because of its unknowable scale combined being able to experience the intensity of the whole place in a few square feet of the right pub stool or café table.