The Big Read Blog (Archive)

What Does Your Desk Say About You? You Don?t Want to Know

August 7, 2008
Washington, DC

David Kipen at his desk

David Kipen at his partly cleaned off desk. Photo by Molly Thomas-Hicks.

I need to write a blog, and I need to clean off my desk. Rather than prioritize, I've decided to conduct a revolutionary experiment. I'm going to excavate the Big Read artifacts that bob to the surface while I decontaminate my workspace, and post on what I find. At this rate I hope to derive ? and provide ? copious blogging enjoyment, and also wind up with a clean desktop no later than next year. As we'll find shortly, I'm not alone in fetishizing my desk?

Since I work from the outermost corner in, so as to impress my colleagues as soon as possible, the first item to catch my attention is a proof of the forthcoming revised Big Read catalog. This handy document lays out all the Big Read titles in a single stapled booklet, so as to make choosing a book easier for aspiring Big Read organizers. There's a catalog meeting this afternoon, so I'd better leave the proof right where it is. This is an ominous precedent.

Before getting down to bare woodgrain, I first turn up:

  • some draft footnotes for the second edition of our Mexico anthology
  • a spreadsheet of all 208 fall and spring grantees
  • some edited blog drafts
  • a copy of the previous Big Read catalog
  • some Big Ride travel authorization forms
  • copies of Road & Track and Car & Driver (a road trip story is catnip to car mags)
  • a production schedule for the next round of Big Read materials (unclear whether original or revised, so chuck it)
  • a copy of our draft cooperative agreement with our partners Arts Midwest
  • and seven books -- books! -- including a copy of The Maltese Falcon festooned with Post-its, and a 1996 photo book called The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz, in which only Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Piaget, and Robert Penn Warren have work surfaces that anyone in his right mind would call messy, and?

It so happens there are two Big Read authors in Krementz's book, Thornton Wilder and Amy Tan. Wilder's desk now reposes on display at the Hamden, Conn., public library, where I lucked across it one day on a bike ride. In Krementz's copyrighted and therefore unlinkable picture, an elderly Wilder sits in profile, a tensor lamp giving the only light in an otherwise darkened room. Wilder has a pencil in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There's a dictionary on a stand, a few books squared in a pile, and a pair of porcelain cups on a shelf, perhaps a holdover from Wilder's youth as a diplomat's son in China.

Wilder isn't giving anything away here. There's no sense of him mugging for the camera, or even studiously avoiding it. He's a slightly forbidding figure, but he may be writing this nifty paragraph accompanying the photo, so I forgive him: "Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day's writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible (not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of). My springboard has always been long walks. I drink a great deal, but I do not associate it with writing." I like this paragraph, and not just because he manages to work in two other Big Read writers.

Amy Tan's photo is much more engaging. Her "yappy little" Yorkie, Bubba Zo, looks to be salaaming on a woven placemat. A stack of old calfskin-bound softcovers teeters atop a sheaf of typescript beside her laptop. The author herself smiles as she works, but her legs are tightly crossed, suggesting more concentration than she's letting on above the table.

Tan's note about her desk is interesting too, because more than half the objects in it are nowhere visible in the photograph: "I surround myself with objects that carry with them a personal history ? old books, bowls and boxes, splintering chairs and benches from imperial China." This photo was taken in New York, so maybe Tan is writing about her desk back home in San Francisco. Either way, the disparity suggests a fundamental mystery about writing. Even if we describe our surroundings in meticulous detail, the real writing happens in a space no emulsion can capture. Which, in the case of my slovenly desk, is probably just as well.