In Praise of Omnivorous Readers


To the Editor:

In her review of “The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison” (Dec. 29), Saidiya Hartman recounts an affair Ellison had with the writer Sanora Babb, who “lived in Hollywood with a Chinese cinematographer.” Yet she never mentions the artist by name. This was, of course, the legendary James Wong Howe (known for his work on films like “Hud,” “Seconds” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” to name just a few). Somewhere I picture Ellison, so frustrated by dismissive labels throughout his life, both rankled by and relishing this “invisible man” irony.

John Monaghan
Pleasant Ridge, Mich.

To the Editor:

In his By the Book (Dec. 22), Mark Morris laments the extent to which he has forgotten the substance of many of the books he has read, contending that he would “fail every attempt to give a book report on just about any one of them.” But I suspect this is true of many omnivorous readers, except perhaps the tiny minority with freakish total recall, a trait that might prove oppressive to live with anyway. Morris cites a long and varied list of authors whose output he has read “most, if not all, of,” and tells us he loved almost all of these works. That he has been capable of deriving such sustained enjoyment from his reading is a vigorous illustration of the power of books to enrich life.

A frequent traveler who has been to a hundred countries will surely have more trouble remembering every detail of every trip than somebody who has only been out of America once or twice, but that hardly means the former has wasted his or her time. In any event, one of the lovely things about being a grown-up is that one is emancipated from the yoke of required reading. One can pick up any book that appeals and read it, without any obligation to finish it if the appeal trickles away, and without any obligation to write a (shudder) “book report.”

David English
Acton, Mass.

To the Editor:

I read the By the Book column through a particular prism: Does the person being interviewed read women writers? How many women writers does he or she choose for the fictitious dinner party? It’s intriguing in the #MeToo era how many people still don’t regularly read work by women. So I noticed that the very first author Mark Morris mentioned was the poet Anne Carson. He also listed Iris Murdoch and Lydia Davis among the authors he’s enjoyed.

As for that dinner party, two of the three he chose are women: Joan Didion and Octavia Butler. As women authors still lag behind their male counterparts in recognition, I rejoice when fellow readers seek out their books.

Jeanne Bonner
West Hartford, Conn.

To the Editor:

Your “Sketchbook” (Dec. 15) did not give Bob Eckstein room to explain, as he does so well in his book “The Illustrated History of the Snowman,” that the earliest known visual depiction of a snowman (in an illuminated manuscript dating to 1380) is actually an anti-Semitic caricature.

While this is a depressing reminder of the prevalence of anti-Semitism, it also gives me an odd feeling of pride. The first snowman was Jewish!

Lizzie Ehrenhalt
St. Paul, Minn.



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