Monday, January 17, 2011

* The Human Mind


I have  been reading books by Stacy Schiff: Cleopatra and then  A Great Improvisation (about Benjamin Franklin, France and the birth of America).  Now I have begun Vera [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]

I can't put them down. 

They all grab you with an immediacy which rings true.  And the exuberance with which Ms. Schiff spies on her subjects is infectious.

 I am exhausted just trying to imagine the hundreds of volumes, letters and diary entries she had to read in order to master her subjects' gestalts.

I have been in the presence of great minds---Harold Bloom at Yale, for instance. And I once took a day-long tour of John Wilkes Booth's escape route from Ford's Theatre, with Ed Bearss, Chief Historian of the National Parks (Emeritus). 

When asked a question by any of us on the tour (we were all members of Gettysburg College's annual week-long Civil War Institute), he would roll his eyes for a moment as if scanning a manuscript somewhere in the sky, and then answer as if  reading from that manuscript, beginning and ending mid-paragraph if the answer called for it.  

His was the most amazing feat of photographic memory I have ever seen in person.

For Ms. Schiff's own health's sake, I hope she is blessed with that same gift.  

I cannot imagine  anyone having  enough energy to assemble the background she wittily mounts in her books, unless she had such a cerebral gift.

And the other amazing quality of her intelligence is the diversity of her interests: Cleopatra, Franklin, Saint Exupery (my next Schiff conquest) and Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

Does this enormous intellect have to start her reading marathon over from scratch with each epoch her intelligence invades? First century Egypt? Eighteenth century France; Nineteenth century Russia? Twentieth century aviation?

I'm floored just thinking about it.


Harold Bloom who "has read more books than anyone alive" according to one New York Times book reviewer.

Ed Bearss, Chief Historian of the National Parks, and a scholar with a photographic memory.

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