More of Szymborska

For decades the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote a newspaper column that she called Nonrequired Reading. When I learned that some of these columns had been translated into English and published in 2002 under the title Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, I ordered the book.  As she explains in her author’s notes, these are not the usual literary book reviews. Her choice of books is quirky and varied, more often than not they are non-fiction. The book is an excuse to write equally quirky pieces of one paragraph extending for no more than two pages, the topic suggested by the reading. Szymborska tells us right off the bat she is not interested in writing a treatise on the merits or the contents of the book. We are in for the unexpected, and she delivers.  I don’t recall ever laughing out loud so many times while reading a book, not even one reputed to be a humorous work.

Springboards for Szymborska’s column come from books on reptiles, the Chinese alphabet, home improvement, the history of clothing, graphology, a button museum, comic strips, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name but a few of her far-ranging interests. She comes away from these books with her characteristic oblique, odd twist on the subjects, and wry slants, which only Szymborska could think of, making us laugh at the understated or absurd aspects of the subject that the book’s author may never have considered. Szymborska has a delightful way of posing questions that makes me burst out laughing time and time again. Her response to a book on yoga is hilarious. Describing at length yoga’s bodily contortions on the “road to perfection” as corporeal macramé, she concludes the piece with: “At this moment the skeptic begins to disentangle himself from the Kukkutasana. We hope he’ll succeed without the help of paramedics.”  I thought this piece was hysterically funny until I got to her review of One Hundred Minutes for Beauty, in which she satirizes the exercise and beauty tips offered a woman all for the sake of making herself attractive to a husband who eventually moves out of  the house to allow his wife more space for jogging and long-distance jumping. “And do you know whom he’ll move in with, that husband?” Szymborska asks, and answers “With Bozena, who begins steps from her knees, stands in line with slumped shoulders, and, can you imagine, looks her age. . . ”

I guarantee you will also find something to tickle your funny bone in this collection of ninety-five short pieces–and this is only a selection from the three volumes of Nonrequired Reading (Lektury Nadobowiazkowe) that Clare Cavanagh chose to translate.

I will keep Nonrequired Reading in the bathroom and reread these little essays in my bubble bath.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. You’re a pretty good book reviewer yourself! Sounds like a delightful read, plus an incentive for a barren writer like myself to pick up the pen again, if for just one paragraph.

    Reply

  2. My favorite author is mid-lister William Kinsella who, indeed, spent most of his career teaching. I have long thought how amazing it would have been to have been able to sit at his feet. For that matter, even rebel authors like Ken Kesey were teachers. I do not think there is fear to be found from the teachers of writing but I do think bad teachers are bad teachers no matter what their subject matter. Certainly, there are some high school science and math teachers who share in the blame for the state of hard sciences education in this country. As always, Olivia, another wonderful, thoughtful post.

    Reply

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