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I've been looking forward to this book for a while, and it was worth the wait.
I love following Madden's tangential thoughts. I'm often surprised by where they end up, but, especially in this collection, was amazed at how often we went in the same direction, seemingly independently, while reading about how many people, seemingly independently, come up with the same ideas and thoughts.
Madden is an incredible non-fiction writer. The title "Sublime Physick" is an element in each of his essays as he takes the physical experiences in life, from the mundane to the humiliating to the frightening, and makes them into the sublime: introspective, thought-provoking essays. Madden shows a deep appreciation for other writers and artists, and there is a constant presence of family values and spirituality.
No one has done more in recent years to defend, revive, invigorate, and celebrate the personal essay than Pat Madden. His website Quotidiana, where he and his students have collected and reproduced essays that were in the public domain, is a treasure trove for teachers, readers, and students. To call a writer's work "smart" has become a kind of cliché of the New York publishing world, but Pat's essays really are smart. His intricate sentences introduce us to a mind with deep interests, strong moral concerns, wide reading, a joy of life, and, well, an inexplicable passion for the band Rush. Pat is an American original and I'm so glad he and the U of Nebraska Press have given us this new and beautifully designed and illustrated book.
The personal essay has been called the story of the mind thinking. Sometimes that mind, when speaking to itself, speaks most clearly to us, all of us. That's what Pat Madden's essays do. Perhaps another way to put it is that the essay is the literary genre most explicitly focused on subjectivity, the one that claims on the one hand to create the subject and on the other to issue directly from it. Like Emerson, we essayists say, ?I also will essay to be.? But what if there really is nothing new under the sun? Montaigne was making a book that was also making him, ?a book consubstantial with its author,? as he put it, but he was also pasting together a commonplace book, one filled with allusions and quotations and the thoughts of others. What if we are our book, but our book is not us? What if this independent redundancy spins out of control and the inadvertent plagiarism becomes complete? What if in a delirium brought on by fever, pneumonia and a stroke, we begin, as the dying Henry James did, to dictate letters as Napoleon? What if we actually become ?Menard, Author of the Quixote"? The scariest moment in the scariest Twilight Zone came when Martin Milner looked into the mirror in the bus station and saw ?himself? over his shoulder, but that self was his identical counterpart from another planet, come down to replace him. Montaigne, c?est moi. Madden, c'est moi. Moi, c'est moi. Dangerous business, this essay writing.
Tracking the twists and turns--the thoughts, opinions, speculations, and reflections of a curious, interesting, idiosyncratic, imaginative mind at work (and play) has always been an adventure for a reader like me--someone who is, by nature and disposition, self-analytical and congenitally digressive. These qualities (among others) are, of course, the landmarks of the personal essay. And that?s why I so much enjoy reading Pat Madden?s essays. That playfulness and wit, resourcefulness and mental agility, is on full display in Sublime Physick, his latest collection.
Madden is also a virtuoso of sorts--in that he manages to circle a thought, idea, and/or a subject at the same time as he?s discovering dimensions and complex layers of meaning in whatever he?s chasing.
Donald Hall describes writing poetry as ?the intense, concentrated pushing of the self past the self's limits?..you have to bring everything to the poem that you have ever learned as to the painting if you are a painter, or to the swing of the bat if you are a hitter, and everything you ever do?.?
In his essays, Pat Madden is, as Hall says, fully present. Whether he?s writing about something as mundane as ?spit? or buying a bass; or as complex as self-plagiarism, or as contemporary as Bob Dylan?s musings, you know you?re reading the work of someone who?s writing at the top of his game.
Five-star review for this eclectic collection of essays. I especially liked the sentence: "There are times when even what I write, plucking ephemera from the cyber-universe, feels like transposing, as though I've opened up my veins and let other writers dump their DNA in" It speaks to how Madden effectively channels literary influence both old and new. The sentences have a peculiar familiarity, not of the plagiarist, but of a master of his craft confidently drawing from a multitude of sources, or a buddy hitting up his friends for favors.
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