Readers and fellow book lovers! Know well that two great temptations lie in wait for thee. Resist them, my friends! Heed not their siren song!
The first of these is -- it nearly goes without saying -- to own an old-fashioned printing press. Nothing too elaborate, of course. Just a small handpress so that one might run up the occasional broadsheet ("Favorite Bookshops of New Orleans"), the odd scholarly monograph ("Parting at Sunrise: The Aubade in 20th-century American Literature") or even a slender chapbook of wistful verse ("Snake Bites and Cosmopolitans"). Given the opportunity, few bibliophiles willingly resist the sensual allure of metal type, Italian rag paper and the finest black ink, not to mention woodblock illustrations in the style of Eric Gill. For who doesn't occasionally long to see one's own colophon proclaiming something like: "Printed at the Aurora Press in an edition limited to 50 copies. This is copy No. 45."?
The second temptation is potentially far more grave, even though it usually begins in idle, seemingly innocuous reverie: Wouldn't it be neat to run a magazine? A literary quarterly, maybe -- something that would reflect one's own quirky, albeit discriminating taste, be a force for good in a dark time, elevate standards, preserve the cultural heritage, promote the young and the restless. Think of Wyndham Lewis's Blast, Sartre's Les Temps Modernes, Harold Ross's New Yorker, Cyril Connolly's Horizon, John Crowe Ransom's Kenyon Review. . . .
One recent weekend, while staring out the window at a bleak landscape of bare trees, dirty snow, monotone gray skies and icy rain, I started mulling over what kind of literary/cultural magazine I'd create, were I given the chance. How better to while away a few hours on such a forbidding afternoon? It was either that or read Kafka. So I began to imagine my regular features, typical articles, the roster of contributing writers and editors, the look of the page, even my credo.
Motto: "Writing that isn't fun to read doesn't get read." That doesn't mean flippant, sophomoric, brazenly youth-oriented, gratuitously ironic jokey stuff. Each of the contributions, no matter what the subject, would need to be entertaining, stylish, informative, insidiously irresistible. Nothing the editor -- moi -- found dull, no matter how earnest or worthy.
Design: The physical appearance of the magazine -- let's call it Odyssey -- would be critical. Nowadays, the Internet supplies essays and articles on every aspect of culture or the arts, but not an actual, physical magazine. To encourage people to buy or subscribe, Odyssey should look attractive, serious, permanent, an adornment to coffee tables, a welcome addition to bookshelves. The best recent model: the "old" Grand Street under the editorship of Ben Sonnenberg. Remember the muted earth-tones of the covers, the off-white paper, the feel of solid intellectual substance? One didn't want only to read the Grand Street articles, one wanted to possess every issue.
Writers: Ah, the real test! Who, I daydreamed, are the writers, scholars and journalists I'd most like to see contribute to Odyssey? These would be men and women whose magazine work I read eagerly whenever I see it anywhere. Some write occasionally for Book World, some don't. To save any embarrassment, even in a fantasy, I decided to exclude from consideration all my colleagues at The Post.
Nonfiction: Guy Davenport (classics, modernism, natural history), John Sutherland (Victoriana, bestsellers), Anthony Grafton (humane letters, classical scholarship), Joan Didion (the way we live now), Katherine A. Powers (audio books, fiction), G. Thomas Tanselle (textual studies), Mark Steyn (politics, movies, musicals), James Campbell (the literary scene), Owen Dudley Edwards (Chesterton, Conan Doyle, Wodehouse), Philip Henscher (fiction), Jonathan Williams (innovative work in the arts), David Streitfeld (book collecting, Silicon Valley), John Clute (fantasy and science fiction), Dawn Trouard (20th-century American literature, women's studies), Thomas M. Disch (poetry and science fiction), Christopher Hitchens (politics and letters), Joseph Epstein (literature, essays), Charlotte Allen (classics, religion, women's studies), James Wood (fiction), William Logan (poetry), Alice K. Turner (fiction), A.N. Wilson (Victorian culture, biography, fiction), Dana Gioia (poetry), David Thomson (film), Robert Craft (music and literature), Steven Moore (innovative writing), Curt Suplee (science), Robert Irwin (Near Eastern studies), Jonathan Raban (places), Edmund Morris (biography), Douglas E. Winter (horror and suspense), Charles Platt (computers and marginalized science), Christopher Ricks (poetry, criticism), Arnold Rampersad (African-American studies), Peter Guralnick (popular music), Iain Sinclair (London), Alberto Manguel (world literature), Barbara Holland (essays), Noel Perrin (American literature, the environment), John Simon (drama, European literature), Ned Rorem (music), Michael M. Thomas (business, current affairs).
Fiction and Poetry: New and young writers would be particularly welcome, but I would also hope to include work by some of my favorite, established masters: James Salter, John Crowley, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Carroll, Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Steven Millhauser, Anthony Hecht, Elizabeth Hand, John Updike, Lawrence Norfolk, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Donald E. Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Gilbert Sorrentino, Lorrie Moore, William Gibson, Francine Prose, Tim Parks, George Pelecanos, Harry Mathews.
Contributing Editors: These -- among the most wide-ranging and idiosyncratic minds around -- would be my advisory board, sometimes my conscience: Edwin Frank of New York Review Books; Michele Slung, editor and anthologist; Jack Shoemaker, publisher; Charles Bertolami, dean of the dental school at UC San Francisco; Harold Varmus, director of Sloan Kettering; Jeffrey Frank, New Yorker editor; Eric Solsten, reader-at-large; A.S. Byatt, novelist and critic.
Scholarly Articles: Scholarship would lie at the heart of Odyssey, but explained for general readers in the mode of Scientific American or the American Scholar, albeit even more playful, various and unexpected. Past examples: Nicholson Baker on card catalogues, Bernard Knox on reading Homer, Marina Warner on folktales.
Fiction and Poetry: No more than two poets per issue, each represented by one to three poems, and only two stories. Authors would be required to append a paragraph or two about their work or artistic practice.
From Other Languages: Noted translators would discuss how they go about recreating and rethinking a work into English. So Michael Hofmann might discuss translating the German of Joseph Roth, Richard Zenith the Portuguese of Fernando Pessoa, Anne Carson the Greek of Sappho.
Interview: Not only writers at work but collectors, scholars and scientists at work. Possible subjects: Peter Brown, the eminent historian of late antiquity; the wide-ranging literary scholar Robert Alter; journalist Janet Malcolm; biographer Claire Tomalin; classicist Peter Green.
Close-up: In which an authority recommends the key texts in his or her field. For example, Barbara Mertz -- first woman Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago -- might cover the five best books about ancient Egypt, or Otto Penzler list the 10 best American mysteries or Michael Tilson Thomas choose his five favorite Mahler recordings.
Notebook: Extracts from various writer's logs, journals, commonplace books. E.g., some pages from Guy Davenport's notebooks -- the seed banks for his plum-filled essays and stories.
Portrait Gallery: Each issue to reproduce one or two photographs of writers, artists or dancers, drawn from the hundreds taken by the brilliant artist-with-a-camera Jack Mitchell.
Curiosities of Literature: Rediscoveries of neglected classics, strange books, literary oddities of all sorts. Possible contributors: Eric Korn, TLS contributor and antiquarian book seller; E.F. Bleiler, longtime editor for Dover; such widely read folk as John Clute, Iain Sinclair, Owen Dudley Edwards, Julian Barnes, Richard Howard.
Interim Report: One-paragraph peeks at what various writers, scholars and journalists are working on.
Learning to See and Listen: This would be a three-part feature. In each issue, critics would comment, respectively, on a poem, novel or short story, a work of visual art and one piece of music. The poems would be reprinted, the art essay accompanied by an illustration, the music by a recommended recording or two. So Dana Gioia might discuss a lyric by Weldon Kees, National Gallery curator Andrew Robison an etching by Piranesi, and Peter Guralnick an Elvis Presley classic or Robert Craft a work of Gesualdo or Stravinsky.
Collector's Corner: Advice on building a library of modern firsts, or the best bluegrass recordings, industrial prints of the 1930s, Bordeaux, comic books, golden-age paperbacks, DVDs, etc.
Syllabus: Who wouldn't like to see the outlines for courses taught by Harold Bloom, Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Camille Paglia? Here Odyssey would reproduce the course syllabi, with assignments and reading lists of noted scholar/teachers. Possibly with marginal commentary by the teacher/scholar on why certain texts were selected.
Excursions: Reports on the cultural life of various cities and places. Say, a visit to Austin, Texas, discussing its writers, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas, etc., etc.
Counsel and Comfort: What books, poems, music, art should you turn to when recovering from a broken heart? Planning a marriage ceremony? A funeral? A graduation? What should you read before visiting Finland?
Neglected Arts: Pieces about cooking, gardening, interior decorating, fashion, woodworking, etc.
Internet Sites: Worthwhile cultural/intellectual sites, chat rooms, listservs on the net.
Surveys: These should be on silly themes as well as serious ones. Notables might be asked: What is the funniest book you've ever read? Which contemporary actor would you most wish to play you in a movie? What thinker's or artist's mind or personality would you prefer to possess? If you had to rescue either an old lady or the Mona Lisa from a burning house, and you could pick only one, which would it be and why? On what aspect of your art do you work the hardest? How should an artist or writer make a living?
Manifestos: Each issue might highlight a leading practitioner or critic describing his personal vision of art, music and literature in our time.
Well, there's obviously a lot more one could do with a magazine of one's own. But looking back over this outline, I note my emphasis on books over new media, practical criticism over theory, the canonical over the fashionable, playfulness over zealotry, pleasure over obligation, the marginalized over the mainstream. Some might even go so far as to say style over substance. Certainly, the range is eclectic, dilettantish. But I do believe in the great W's: the whimsical and the wistful, the witty and the worldly. But then knowledge of the arts really should be a source of personal amusement and satisfaction. You memorize poetry, said Anthony Burgess, so that you can belt out appropriate verse when drunk, just as art in general, as Samuel Johnson reminded us, should allow people to better enjoy life or to better endure it. *
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussions of books take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.