A Place to Read: Life and Books

Cohen’s subjects in A Place to Read can be as commonplace as golfing with close friends, amateur astronomy, birding, or learning to fly at the age of sixty.


Cohen’s subjects in A Place to Read can be as commonplace as golfing with close friends, amateur astronomy, birding, or learning to fly at the age of sixty. But he asks difficult questions about how we are grounded in space and time, how we are affected by our names, how a healthy person can turn into a hypochondriac, and how we might commune with the dead. And throughout he measures, compares and interprets his experiences through the lens of six decades of reading.

The tools of the writer’s trade fascinate him as do eateries in his small college town, male dress habits, American roads, and roadside shrines. He lives on the Blood River in Kentucky when he is not in the Tucson Mountains.

Michael Cohen

For the last couple of decades, Michael Cohen has been publishing personal and topical essays in a variety of magazines from the Harvard Review to Birding. IP published a collection of them, A Place to Read, in 2014. Here is another collection, And Other Essays. Before he retired from teaching, Cohen wrote an introductory poetry text, The Poem in Question (Harcourt Brace, 1983) and an award winning Shakespeare study, Hamlet in My Mind’s Eye (Georgia, 1989). Michael Cohen lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Don’t Read the Whole Thing

John Rawls, introducing his influential A Theory of Justice, does a remarkable thing for an author. “This is a long book,” he writes, and then proceeds to explain how you can get the theory he presents along with explanations of terms and pertinent examples by reading sections of the book that amount to only about a third of his 600 pages! It would be churlish not to take this advice, I thought, choosing the 200-page option. Plenty of other books, in my opinion—famous ones, classics, and supposed must-reads—should be preceded by Rawls-like advice about how to read them without reading all of them.

According to Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Yes, even the classics may need some selective tasting. By all means read every word of The Odyssey, the master narrative of Western literature, because it will entertain, and, if you are a storyteller, train you as well. But The Iliad is another matter. When Homer describes encounters between Paris and Hector or Hector and Andromache, still more when he turns his merciless attention to Trojans and Greeks killing each other, he will keep anyone’s interest. But if you read every item in his catalogues of which country sent how many ships to Troy, only if you have a map of ancient city-states before you and a passion for ancient geography will you stay awake. By all means, skim Homer’s lists as you would the begats in Genesis. Just keep in mind that Homer’s catalogues really did interest his first readers and still command the attention of students of the ancient world.

The Aeneid requires cutting on a different plan. Here it’s pretty much a matter of checking out after the councils of the gods in Book 1, the escape from Troy in 2, Aeneas’s travels in 3, the romance of Dido and Aeneas in 4, and the trip to the Underworld in 6. In 6 we get a prophecy of what happens until the founding of Rome, but we don’t have to actually live through the enactment of the prophecy.

Authors may not be as helpful as John Rawls, but they do sometimes signal where your attention can wander. When a shepherd in Don Quixote begins to tell a story peopled by no one we’ve yet met but rather folks with conventional Romantic names, it’s safe to skip the rest of that chapter and possibly the next; the chapter titles will tell us when the main narrative resumes.

The point is that life is short and some books—even some very good books—are too long. A lot of selective reading is just taste, of course. At the halfway point in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich I realized that Hitler’s monomaniacal hobbling of his generals’ freedom to act and other aspects of the war’s progress were going to be far less interesting to me than the story of Hitler’s complicated and politically astute climb to power had been, and I just stopped reading. It’s your reading life, after all, and no one else’s; find the good parts and leave the rest unread.

The Cross and the Windmills

Drivers on Interstate 40, coming over a low hill on the Texas plains east of Amarillo, see on the horizon a white cross. The town nearby is Groom, with about six hundred residents, located on a bypass from the interstate, a little piece of the old Route 66. The cross, when it suddenly appeared on the horizon and grew gradually bigger as I approached, was until recently an imposing and isolated sight, dominating an otherwise empty landscape. Since the cross is visible for nearly ten miles, there is a lot of time to wonder at its presence, to speculate on exactly how big it is and who erected it. I discovered the answers to these questions by pulling into the small park next to the cross and reading the information posted there.

The cross is almost sixty meters high—190 feet to be exact, or as tall as a 15-story building. Its arms stretch 110 feet. For comparison, the statue of Christ the Redeemer that looks out over Rio de Janeiro from the top of Corcovado Mountain is only 30 meters tall, though it has the advantage of Corcovado’s 700-meter height to give it prominence. The stylized corrugations representing folds in the robe in Paul Landowski’s Art Deco design for Cristo Redentor may possibly have suggested the fluting or channeling in the skin of the Groom cross. Two Texas millionaires are responsible for the cross. Chris Britten, who owned the large, now defunct gas station, curio shop, and restaurant nearby, donated the land, and Steve Thomas had the cross built in sections in Pampa, Texas, before it was transported and assembled at this site in 1995. Bronze statues representing the stations of the cross and other sacred subjects ring the white metal cross. These include a pietá copied from Michelangelo, a St. Michael and Lucifer that could be mistaken for St. George and the Dragon, a fountain, an empty tomb, an anti-abortion monument, and the ten commandments. But the main player is the cross, dwarfing all the bronze below. Yet it is almost an anticlimax to arrive at the cross, since we can only imagine its size, with nothing to provide scale, during our approach to it, and it could, for all we could guess from ten or five miles away, be four hundred feet tall.

Not long ago as I drove on I-40, approaching the cross at Groom, I saw on the horizon white shapes of a very different sort, dozens of them, and all larger than the Groom cross. They were the huge three-bladed windmills or wind turbines that we have become accustomed to seeing over the last few years on the windy plains of America. Cross and turbines have in common a certain mysteriousness of scale: I find it difficult, even when I am within a few hundred yards, to guess how large they are. But I have often seen on the road trucks transporting the blades of turbines, and with cars for comparison I have no trouble comprehending that each blade is over a hundred feet long.

In fact the blades are 130 feet long, and the tower that supports them is over two hundred fifty feet high, so the structure, when a blade is pointing straight up, is easily four hundred feet tall, or more than twice the height of the Groom cross, and there are dozens of them in view as one approaches and drives by the cross. The wind turbines (socalled even though they are not actually turbines but simple generators powered by the geared-up turning of a wind fan) are often arranged along the fronts of mesas so that they look like modern equivalents of the windmills of La Mancha, and I can imagine that some wizard—Frestón, for instance—had replaced the old landmarks with these three-armed white giants. Wind farms, they call these collections, and some in America have almost five thousand of the turbines.

I have to think that at least part of the intent and effort of the two millionaires who put up the cross has been frustrated. The intent, I imagine, was at least partly to create a particular moment of contemplation of Christianity’s central symbol and of what it means to those speeding toward it over the plains of the Texas Panhandle at seventy-five miles an hour. Whether our thoughts were contemplative and religious, or whether, like me, you were merely marveling at the scale of the cross, it captured your thoughts for the time it took to reach it. It gestured upward from a terrain of flatness and clear views to a far horizon. Like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, the cross organized a natural landscape with the insertion of a man-made object and perhaps pointed thoughts toward a third realm beyond the physical.

But no more. What has happened here is partly dilution and partly distraction. Attention that once had been trained solely on the cross is now divided among a number of monumental shapes on the plain. An added distraction is the movement of the new shapes. An aesthetic question arises: is the cross more beautiful than the windmills, or vice versa? And beyond aesthetics is the question of meaning and meaningful activity: the cross does symbolic work while the wind turbines do real work. The many questions the turbines raise do not touch the metaphysical. Who put them up? Where does the electricity they generate get distributed, and how much juice is there? Does the wind always blow here? How long does it take for the electricity generated to pay off the cost of these huge machines? Wind turbines call us to the things of this world.

Sorry, But I Enjoy Air Travel

It’s common for travelers to complain about flying, while writers and comedians make rueful comedy about it. George Carlin most notably dissected airline P. A. announcements, from the idiocy of “pre-boarding” to the jaw-droppingly naïve instruction to “breathe normally” when an emergency oxygen mask drops ominously in front of your face.

I like to travel by air. I fly my own airplane for fun, but I travel by commercial airliner. I won’t try to convince you that all aspects of it are pleasant; you know better. But I have convinced myself that any unpleasantness is much magnified—or greatly improved—by attitude. Take, for example, the matter of luggage. A car encourages you to fill its trunk. Trains and buses suggest by their size that they have room for anything you can bring. Only air travel demands that you ask yourself what is necessary to pack. I realized long ago that the pilots’ and flight attendants’ tote on top of a small rolling case made all kinds of sense and was probably a restriction arrived at through compromise: what the crews absolutely needed for stays that could be unpredictably long versus the airlines’ necessity to provide space for the paying rather than the paid souls on board. I may be odd in enjoying the challenge of choice or rejection of that stylin’ sweater, and I positively enjoy the game of reducing weight and bulk in my shaving and medication kit.

When a jet leaves the ground, the pilot raises the nose to a steep attitude for the climb out. To a person like myself trained to fly in small non-jet planes, it’s an impossible angle that I know will result in a stall, after which the plane will drop immediately several hundred feet; since we are so near the ground, we will crash. It doesn’t happen, of course, because the thrust of these jet airplanes allows them to practically stand on their tails, but for me, it’s one of several moments in commercial flying when I am forced to think about the imminence of death. Another such moment is the landing, which in a jet takes place at a speed entirely too close to two hundred miles an hour. Again, landing my own small plane is different: it is an exhilarating feeling of being the only one responsible for getting this puppy safely onto the ground, but it takes place at speeds that quickly slow from a hundred miles an hour to less than fifty.

I should make clear that I don’t think occasionally imagining that one’s death is close is a bad thing. We don’t do it often enough, I believe. Those who don’t fly or those fliers who are utterly indifferent to the experience never feel those moments of near-terror that others of us do: not just the volaphobes—if there is such a word—but also those of us who don’t fear flying, but who carefully observe the stages of flight that are the most dangerous moments. Most automobile drivers, I suspect, have had a near-crash experience when they do momentarily feel the brush of the dark angel’s wing. Flying is exhilarating for me partly because of such moments in the air, brief as they may be.

But most of the exhilaration of flying commercial is in the sheer unlikelihood of it all. That feeling when the wheels leave the ground and their unpleasant vibration gives way to smoothness and freedom, for example, is always increased for me when I’m looking from the back of a 747 across eight rows of seats and forward most of a football field’s length to the front, thinking, “this is a building that’s launching itself into air!” And even at altitude, flying comfortably along, with a drink on the tray in front of me not even vibrating a bit, I often think how truly wild and strange it is to be going five hundred miles an hour six miles up in the sky without even having my hair ruffled.

A hundred years ago Virginia Woolf noted that “Cultivated people grumble at trains, and, if they are old enough, prefer the days of the stage coach…But surely it is time that someone should sing the praises of express trains.” Air travel needs its boosters, too. No excitement attends waiting in airports, going through lines for security checks, or driving to and from airports, and any one of these chores might end up taking as long as my flight. But these tedious matters enable me to experience the flight itself, a method of travel still astonishing and as different from ordinary modes of getting across land and sea as the soaring of an eagle is from the crawling of an ant. And at the end I am deposited in a different time zone, on another continent, or even half the world away.

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Customer Reviews

1-5 of 6 reviews

  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    When we call someone “bookish,” we’re usually thinking of the classic bookworm who encloses himself in a world separate from everyday life. I always think of that classic episode of “The Twilight Zone,” where Burgess Meredith wants nothing more out of life than the solitude he needs to read books in the library. (I’m sure you all remember the ironic ending.)

    Michael Cohen is bookish in a different way. For him books are an extension of an active life, the means to connect his own environment and experiences to the world at large, the one we all live in. The need to connect and what we learn about the world and ourselves when we do is the theme of these fascinating explorations.

    You might say that the “topic” of a Cohen essay doesn’t really matter all that much. It can be serious (capital punishment) or trivial (local restaurants). Cohen begins his essay “Men in Uniform” by describing his own attitude toward the clothing he wears. As a “typical male” he is largely indifferent. You might say at this point, “Who cares what this guy wears”? But that’s the whole point: the everyday decision is just the beginning of the inquiry. The stimulus is a book (something about ladies’ black dresses) which Cohen vividly recalls reading. And then we’re off, on a journey through the fascinating, surprising, often funny world of men’s clothing. As Cohen tells us. “one of the governing principles of male sartorial design is making inappropriate choices hard to blunder into.” Along the way we get all kinds of wonderful information: Tobacco tycoon P. J. Lorillard, imitating the Prince of Wales, brings the tuxedo to America. The men’s suit evolves from a display of the male body to concealment of it. The rise and fall (and rise and fall) of the double-breasted suit, etc. Finally we return to Michael Cohen and his clothing choices. But it’s not really about him any more. It never is, and that’s really the point.

    Sometimes Cohen’s topics are obviously serious. His brilliant essay on capital punishment (“The Victims and the Furies”) couldn’t be more different from the usual “pro/con” essay. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you agree or disagree with Cohen’s position. (Why be coy? He’s against it.) Either way you will be dazzled by his fascinating arguments and the wide range of his references, from Orestes killing his mother in the Oresteia of Aeschylus to Michael Dukakis fumbling his answer to a question on CNN.

    And sometimes we just get a little fun, as in his essay on the demographics of local restaurants and the pleasures of a round of his beloved game of golf.

    We learn a lot about Michael Cohen from his essays. But we learn much more about the world we all live in. The final message of these informative and entertaining essays: Each of us is alone. But we’re all in this together.

    – Richard Steiger, Amazon verified review

    July 13, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    Michael Cohen’s essays on the reading life are a treat to read. Relaxed, personal, wide-ranging, they contain fascinating nuggets of information and lively assessments of hundreds of books, as well as a whole life’s worth of thoughtful rumination on time, love, travel, and family, as well as what it means to be, almost existentially, a reader.

    – Christina Thompson, Editor, Harvard Review

    July 13, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    Anyone who has pounded the pavement selling The Great Books of the Western World in 54 volumes and lived to tell gets my undying respect and should get yours. Michael Cohen is a book rat, not a book snob. For him, the pleasures of the book are tactile and auditory as well as psychological and philosophical. The essays in A Place to Read take on potential plate-lunch combinations in western Kentucky, the tuxedo as male uniform, the golf course as locus of friendship and humor, and Baptist theological responses to Day of the Dead practices in Michoacán, in addition to more strictly literary subjects.

    – Ann Neelon, editor of New Madrid

    July 13, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    I don’t know if Michael Cohen drinks Dos Equis, but if and when he does, he may qualify as one of the most interesting men in the world. Cohen is a retired English professor, amateur astronomer, small plane pilot, long time birder, golfer, world traveler, and author. He has dealt with family tragedy and daunting health issues, spent seven months leisurely reading three-thousand pages of French novelist Marcel Proust, and dined with two future Apollo astronauts. But above all he is a reader and lover of books, and therein lies the central theme of A Place to Read: Life and Books. Cohen is a keen observer who writes clearly and candidly about his experiences and at the same time he is an avid reader who does not shy away from the deeper thoughts of authors such as essayist Michel de Montaigne or E. B. White. His passion for books is evident throughout this fascinating collection of essays and I heartily recommend Cohen’s book to any self-confessed bibliophile. After reading A Place to Read, I am reminded of a passage in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life: “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”

    – Bob Vickers, Amazon verified review

    July 13, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    There are books about books and even books about readers, but there are few books about reading. Michael Cohen has filled that void wonderfully, with a book of essays that in one way or another, tell about a life of reading.

    Cohen’s life as essayist, professor, and keen observer of ordinary things and people are the substance of these essays, but in one way or another, each brings the reader back to the special joys of a life of loving books and reading. Each in its own way comments on the human situation, filtered through a personal optic that is at once refined and erudite. And yet, there is nothing stilted about these essays.

    Every reader will come away with favorite essays from this collection – three stood out for me, mainly because they touched a personal nerve or two. What I liked most about the essays in general was how Michael Cohen artfully — or maybe just naturally — integrates life with books and books with life. Everywhere, for him, there is the synapse between experience and books read.

    Michael Cohen has given us a collection of personal retrospectives that deserve a place in the finest tradition of the American essay. They are simple and direct—amusing, highly personal, and insightful. They’ll make you smile, smirk, frown, and gasp, but they’ll never bore. I promise.

    – E. A. Allen, author of the Montclaire Mysteries

    July 13, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    The act of reading is one thing, but to really love reading means sharing with others the gifts and flaws that admired writers have delivered to us across time and place. It is to interpret those writers’ attempts “to describe what is indescribable,” as E.B. White once put it, and remind us of what those writers reveal about the world and ourselves. That is the promise Michael Cohen makes to readers of his essays in A Place to Read.

    Cohen, a retired literature professor, neatly ties together his personal essays with ribbons of pithy wisdom from writers he describes with familiarity and reverence, like beloved aunts and uncles he hasn’t seen in years. When summarizing the effect Proust and Montaigne had on him in the frankly-named essay, “A Retiree Reads Proust and Montaigne,” he explains, “both these writers provided me with what I was after: some self-indulgence and a good dose of the subjective.

    It doesn’t matter how many of the authors a reader has met before; Cohen will introduce you to them anew. In fact, A Place to Read is most fun when the reader tries to keep up with Cohen’s literary associations. The author is in his element when linking Hamlet to the features of Moleskine notebooks by way of James Joyce and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ writing processes as in the essay, “Notebooks.” Or, in one of his strongest narratives, Cohen constructs a vision of Mexico starting with his 1965 spring break visit to a NASA tracking station in Guaymas as Gemini 3 circled the Earth. Then he somehow ends with discovering Frida Kahlo’s ashes, while along the way conjuring Mary McCarthy, Alain de Botton and Susan Sontag as if they were Mexico’s scenic lookouts, crammed megacities or rugged canyons.

    In embracing this professorial voice, Cohen becomes a confident and unapologetic scholarly tour guide, showing the reader around the seemingly random but intensely personal places of his life. To your left is the Barrancas del Cobre in Mexico. Straight ahead you’ll see a roadside memorial outside Tucson. Here are the bookshelves being emptied as formerly treasured books are being sold off.

    And often the places he shows us represent more than just backdrops or settings. Place bolsters the understanding of his life at particular stages and tethers him to specific states of mind. Place, then, is a metaphysical concept that streams through the essays. “I am located when I am in one of these places,” he writes of his dual homes in Tucson, Arizona, and on the Blood River in western Kentucky.

    In the title essay, Cohen invites readers to question the relationship between space and the act of absorbing what books offer us:

    When I think about the power of reading to transform place and the way real readers read anywhere, I can’t help but have mixed feelings about the idea of ‘reading rooms,’ places designed specifically for reading.

    Cohen does stumble in the essay “Men in Uniform” when he uses outdated generalizations, presumably to amuse. Instead, they seem to jolt the reader out of the informative and thought-provoking place to read that Cohen has constructed.

    Cohen begins that essay, “One of the many reasons I am glad to be male—right up there with never having to deal with menstruation and usually being able to get my carry-on out of the overhead compartment by myself—is the clothes.”

    Later in “Men in Uniform,” Cohen describes the sentiments in Ilene Beckerman’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, as “unthinkable except perhaps for gay men: straight men do not ordinarily associate their affective lives with their clothes or shoes.”

    But Cohen, as any good essayist, is inviting us into his mind, his experience, his particular shade of glasses through which this retired professor, amateur pilot, compulsive reader, happy golfer, proud father, eager traveler and shrewd observer views the world.

    In doing so, Cohen spends as much effort prompting readers to think about life as he does showing how great literature can inform us about the joys of flying or comprehending death or about the construction pens and the nature of names. Cohen wrestles with existential questions that confound us all without straining for answers that he doesn’t have:

    … in fact the impatient skywatcher sees little of what the heavens offer. One cannot even begin to see dim objects until the eyes are dark-adapted, so the first twenty to thirty minutes under the stars have to be indirect gestures toward seeing.

    At his best, Cohen treats the essays like indirect gestures toward understanding life. And that’s worth finding a place to read.

    – Ryan Alessi, New Madrid

    July 13, 2023

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