Intellectualized personal remembrances of things past.
Birkerts (Art of Time in Memoir: Time, Again, 2007) is best known as a literary critic and author of the prescient Gutenberg Elegies, wherein he predicted, in 1995, that the Internet as a widely popular source for information would be detrimental to our interest in language and sustained serious analysis. In his latest collection of lighter but no less considered essays, Birkerts remains astute, witty and surprisingly sentimental. The engaging pieces are varyingly spare and drawn-out, several as brief as one page and most covering two or three. With subjects including a landscape painting of his grandfather's, a reflection on the word "plunge" and how, upon a friend's death, he inherited a very fine pair of Italian leather loafers, there's no necessary order to the pieces. Though short, many bear more similarity to poems than to works of prose. "Consciousness," he writes, in an essay about a German poet, "is not for nothing, even if it is clearly bracketed by the moments of our birth and our death." Birkerts moves back and forth between his memories and the present, weaving them together in a dreamlike manner. They're not funny like those of David Sedaris or Ian Frazier, or in possession of any particular angle, but the real value and appeal of these pieces is the way they ripple out. Reading one after the other has the effect of skipping a stone across a pond; they're not long enough to delve too deeply for long.
It's impossible to read these close-to-the-ground essays without reminiscing on one's own past, connecting the dots between possessions and emotions, say, or reconciling memories of old lovers and friends with the way things turned out.