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NONREQUIRED READING by Wislawa Szymborska Kirkus Star


Prose Pieces

by Wislawa Szymborska & translated by Clare Cavanagh

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-15-100660-1
Publisher: Harcourt

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 we make 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.