Nonrequired Reading – Wislawa Szymborska

Written by:
Nicole Williams
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In the author’s note that opens Nonrequired Reading, Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska writes about a reader’s freedom: to read intelligent books or stupid ones, to stop long before the end of a book, to eavesdrop, to argue. This collection of short book reviews is a lovely gift to those who share her sense that reading is “the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised.” The essays here are wry, gentle, provocative, skeptical, and fearless.

Szymborska has reservations about Jung’s writing on dreams–he doesn’t distinguish at all between dreamed dreams and narrated dreams. As a poet, particularly as one whose work has been translated, she understands “how much trouble it is to transpose the various nuances, tones, and accents from one language into another.” And so she asks, “should translating dreams into waking speech be easier?”

When she reviews Wallpapering Your Home, Szymborska doesn’t comment on the techniques suggested by the author – at least, not on the wallpapering techniques. She instead imagines the efforts a reader must undertake just to acquire the necessary tools: visits to stores of dubious inventory, dropping in on friends to see if the tools can be borrowed.

The subject matter of the books she reviews ranges from mummies (“beautiful in some aggressive and overwrought way”) to Hatha Yoga (“not for skeptics”) to continental drift (“The vision is fascinating in and of itself, so long as humanity doesn’t discover the laws that govern the motion of the earth’s surface and then figure out a way to slam one land mass into another.”) A book about Polish birds elicits concise praise for the book; for poetry about birds, and for the birds themselves: “For their smart, stately strutting, but also for the hobbling that makes it seem as if the earth is never motionless beneath them.”

Szymborska cherishes the precision of Ella Fitzgerald’s singing and her goodwill toward her audience. She has less affection for Dale Carnegie, but writes with good-humored tolerance for the quirks of eccentric writers (Hans Christian Andersen, Jules Verne, Thomas Mann.) She says, “All the things in certain books that charm me, amuse me, move me, that make me think or somehow help me in life were produced by very imperfect mortals.”

This poet’s reading reflects her rigorous and fascinated engagement with the world. Books are not her escape from mundane matters. In her Nobel speech, she said, “Whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.” In Szymborska’s work, there is a profound generosity and that willingness to be astonished. There is also a stringent, disciplined insistence on questioning cliches and received notions. As a reviewer, she is as dismissive of academic cant as she is of enthusiastic sentimentality.

This is not a book best gulped down in one sitting. For one thing, the breadth and charm of the book reviews encourage one to seek out further reading, if not always the exact titles under Szymborska’s scrutiny. The brevity of the pieces allows for disconnected readings on commuter trains, in doctor’s waiting-rooms, or in other dull but inescapable places. Her voice is the best kind of company for such ordinary situations.

– Nicole Williams

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