Tuesday, August 23, 2016
"His turn at the lectern"
May 23, 2016 "His turn at the lectern": I cut out this article by Mark Medley in the National Post on Oct. 8, 2011:
A couple of years ago, Adam Gopnik was waiting for the bus at the corner of 58th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City. He’d recently purchased his first iPhone and, while checking his email, received a message from Bernie Lucht, the executive producer of Ideas, a show on CBC radio. The email was an invitation for Gopnik to deliver an upcoming instalment of the Massey Lectures, which is produced by Ideas.
Gopnik immediately knew that he would accept the offer, but, getting on the bus, was struck by the question that must greet all potential Massey lecturers: “What am I going to talk about?” He wanted to talk about something quintessentially Canadian, but with universal appeal. Almost immediately, an idea popped into his head. As the M2 bus worked its way north through Manhattan, Gopnik worked out the form his lectures would take, the issues he would address, and even to whom the lectures would be dedicated (his mother-in-law, the filmmaker Gudrun Bjerring Parker).
“By the time I got off the bus at 86th Street, I had the thing worked out in my head,” says Gopnik, sitting in the library of his downtown Toronto hotel earlier this week. “I went in and told my wife, ‘You won’t believe what just happened. I just got this invitation to give the Masseys, and I think I know what I want to do.’ ”
What Gopnik wanted to do was talk about winter. Now, two years later, the idea he came up with on a 20-minute bus trip through midtown Manhattan will form the basis of the 2011 Massey Lectures, which Gopnik will deliver on a cross-country tour later this month.
Winter, as Gopnik’s lecture is simply called, is divided into five sections: Romantic Winter explores how the idea of winter has evolved over time; Radical Winter gives us a brief history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration; Recuperative Winter is a cultural history of Christmas; Recreational Winter gives Gopnik an opportunity to talk about hockey for an hour; and Remembering Winter ponders the future of the season in the age of climate change.
“I think if you read my work — not that anyone should — you’ll see that winter themes … are very prominent,” Gopnik says, mentioning his young adult novel The King in the Window, which is set in Paris during winter, and The Steps Across the Water, which is a riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Even his bestselling memoir Paris to the Moon is organized around Christmastime. “So I think that’s been part of my makeup, one of the things that sort of obsessed me, for a very long time.”
Gopnik, in writing for The New Yorker since 1986, has made a career out of his obsessions. The 55-year-old essayist was born in Philadelphia, but in 1968 the family moved to Montreal, where his parents taught at McGill and where the weather left an indelible mark on him: “When I think back to my youth in Montreal, I still think first of winter,” he writes. Despite not having lived in Canada for 30-odd years, he’s still intimately tied to this country: his wife, Martha, is Canadian, as are his two children, and his parents live in Campbellford, Ont. “I have a composite identity, like most people, but a very important strand of that composite identity is Canadian.”
It’s one reason he was asked to deliver the Massey Lectures, which are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Named after Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, the lectures have hosted the likes of Northrop Frye, Noam Chomsky, Martin Luther King, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robert Fulford and Margaret Atwood. (The CBC will be posting all past lectures — with the exception of King’s due to rights issues — on their website in the coming weeks.)
“It’s about discussing ideas about our country, about our world,” Lucht says. “There’s never enough of that. And this, to me, is one piece, a big piece, of the CBC’s contribution to those kinds of discussions.”
A committee made up of representatives from Massey College, House of Anansi Press (which publishes the lectures) and the CBC meet every November to discuss potential lecturers, who are chosen at least two years in advance. Lucht maintains “a long and secret list of possibilities,” though he says they encourage suggestions. While it used to be the lectures were recorded in a studio, since 2002 they have been delivered across the country — this year Gopnik will start in Montreal on Oct. 12, head to Halifax, Edmonton and Vancouver, and finish in Toronto on Oct. 26. Each lecturer is paid $75,000 for their efforts, and can be asked only once. “I look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” says Lucht, who’s been working on the lectures since 1971.
The lectures have become more accessible and less academic in recent years. “They should be middlebrow, in the best possible sense,” Gopnik says. “That is, they should touch on something that is quite profound and significant but in a way that isn’t academic.” Recent lectures have included Margaret Atwood on debt (Payback), Wade Davis on disappearing cultures (The Wayfinders) and Douglas Coupland’s novel Player One. While there’s been talk of changing the format — at one point the idea of doing an interview was contemplated — Lucht is a fan of the lecture.
“That form will simply accommodate a great many types of things,” he says. “So even though it’s fundamentally a conservative format, it’s adaptability to content is almost infinite.”
“I love the lecture as a literary form,” he says.
In preparing for his own, Gopnik read a handful of past lectures, then, about a year ago, delivered a series of mock lectures in his living room to a group of family and friends. “We had a little lectern, and we had a mic … and then I talked. I went through each one of the lectures one by one, piece by piece, and talked them through.” Afterwards, “we’d all have coffee, and I’d get notes from everybody in the room.” He used these as the foundation for the lectures; though they have changed, the essence remains the same. He also wanted to keep them as conversational as possible; they lack the polish of his New Yorker essays.
Like The Wayfinders or Stephen Lewis’ 2005 lecture Race Against Time, Winter contains an underlying note of urgency. It ends with a meditation on what we stand to lose if climate change persists.
“Even if our lives don’t change that dramatically, day to day and season to season — that is to say, it’s hard to imagine, even if the worst predictions come true, that Montreal will be a green and snowless place — nonetheless, just losing our knowledge of the north, just having that kind of disruption is a disruption of our imaginations and our memories,” he says. A word he learned while writing the lectures is “vernalization”; it refers to seeds and plants that have to freeze in winter in order to bloom in spring. “We’re a vernalized civilization, and if we can’t be vernalized anymore, we’ll be very different.”
Winter is one of two books Gopnik is publishing this fall. The Table Comes First, reflections on food and family, comes out later this month. He spent the year writing in two shifts, seven days a week, alternating between the two books (as an inside joke, of sorts, they share a single sentence). “It was a demanding year,” he says. There’s a lot more material he wishes he could have included in the lectures, such as Gilles Vigneault, Quebec chansons, more on Russian winter and Tom Thomson (“An hour-long lecture is not that many words,” he says), but Gopnik doesn’t envision returning to the material.
“One of the odd things about writing is that you’re drawn to a subject because you have some kind of an obsessive relationship with it, whether it’s Paris or child-rearing or winter,” he says. “You want to organize your emotions about this thing that has a deep, obsessive life within you. And you do. And the cost of it is you totally lose the obsession.
“It’s like blowing up a helium balloon. Once it’s blown up, and you tie it off, it just kind of floats away.”
Aug. 22, 2016:
My opinion: The last paragraph stood out to me the most. I'm sure a lot of you guys know that I write about the same things a lot to get it out of my head like Dateline: To Catch a Predator and the girl who's in a religion that doesn't allow her to talk to boys.
However, ever since Sept. 2014, I have been posting news articles on my blog so that has helped me get away from writing that.