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John Updike’s memoirs consist of six Emersonian essays that together trace the inner shape of the life, up to the age of fifty-five, of a relatively fortunate American male. The author has attempted, his foreword states, “to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” In the service of this metaphysical effort, he has been hair-raisingly honest, matchlessly precise, and self-effacingly humorous. He takes the reader beyond self-consciousness, and beyond self-importance, into sheer wonder at the miracle of existence.
loved Mickey Mouse or, a bit later in latency, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man? Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it. In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe
theme of the movies and adventure stories of my boyhood.* This phobia was not soothed by the growing power of photographers, as lenses and film improved, to bring us, in such educational magazines as National Geographic, images of the enlarged anatomies of bees and dragonflies, of sideways-munching mandibles and hairy pronged forelegs, of segmented antennae and many-faceted, hemispherical eyes. A playful roommate put on my desk one such spread of blow-ups—especially vivid, in color, on the big
that I had allowed this rumored Oz of cartoon syndicates and animation studios and magazine offices to assume within myself bespeaks, it might be said, some inner defect, some vacuum that nothing intimate and actual could fill, and my subsequent career carries coarse traces of its un-ideal origins in popular, mechanically propagated culture. The papery self-magnification and immortality of printed reproduction—a mode of self-assertion that leaves the cowardly perpetrator hidden and out of harm’s
other than a schoolteacher, so her ferocity seemed to me excessive and rhetorical; I took comfort from the presence of rich, red-headed Arch and sophisticated, Greenwich-dwelling Mary in the background of our modest Berks County life as I inched upward from grade to grade, looked forward to Christmas and then to summer, slowly outgrew my clothes from Croll & Keck and my shoes from Wetherhold & Metzger, borrowed my mystery novels from Whitner’s and my P. G. Wodehouses from the Reading Public
exchange for our exemption from the broad brawl of, to give it a name, salesmanship. My father, in his desperate economic straits in the years surrounding my birth,* once tried salesmanship, and walked the streets of Birdsboro offering insurance to other inhabitants of the Depression, and on returning to Philadelphia Avenue went to bed for several days, beaten. His father, too, does not seem to have been a good enough salesman, though he persisted at it longer. Trenton and its business matters