Amateurs. Seeking mastery? Here’s our Truth.


TRUTH. In a second.

He’s the spark for this share.  Greg Cowles, editor of the NY Times Book Review, reviews Mary Karr’s new book The Art of Memoir.  One sentence in his review (also titled The Art of Memoir) summarizes his thoughts on the book:

It is not, alas, a very good book. Repetitive, unorganized, unsure of its audience or tone, it can’t decide whether it wants to be a how-to guide or a work of critical analysis.

Here’s my review of the book review in fewer words: BAH!

Now on to the Truth, our Truth, Truth for anyone seeking mastery of anything – with the most illuminating excerpt from Karr’s new book.

“One of the greatest memoirs of all time is G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (1940). Nearing the end of his life, Hardy felt his mathematical abilities wane and tried to kill himself. He was a nerdy guy with few deep emotional connections. […] Hardy ends with one of the most brutal, yet somehow hopeful, credos for anybody trying to make anything.

I have never done anything “useful.” No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. . . . Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. . . . I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I often hand this out to students as they graduate, to remind them that anybody struggling to make something— no matter how they succeed or don’t in terms of the marketplace— has entered into conversation with giants.

We’re all in the same arena, and our efforts differ “in degree only, and not in kind.” Just picking up a pen makes you part of a tradition of writers that dates thousands of years back and includes Homer and Toni Morrison and cave artists sketching buffalo. It’s a corny attitude to revere writers in this celebrity age, when even academics cry the author is dead. Go to any book award ceremony, and we’re like America’s Homeliest Video. We are the inward-looking goofballs who spill on our blouses and look befuddled in our selfies.

But I still feel awe for us— yes, for the masters who wrought lasting beauty from their hard lives, but for the rest of us, too, for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind.

And I’d like to leave you thinking about diffident old Hardy, who— by his own yardstick— failed. He did no work as lastingly beautiful and relevant as, say, Einstein or Newton. I’m no judge of his mathematical work, which may or may not be as minor as he finds it, yet this book he thought so little of, still published by a small press, is the most widely read memoir by a mathematician I know. And every time I read it, it showers me with sparkles like a Disney fairy. None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.”

~ Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir.



  1. One of the books on my nightstand – the ones that need to be read over again. Indeed ‘Bah’ – a misguided review. I think it’s a terrific book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. this sounds wonderful, in spite of the scathing review.

    ” our efforts differ in degree only, and not in kind.”


    “to bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely.”

    yes –

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reviewers are dicks in general. Truth like Karr’s is never clear-cut, categorized, pointed in one direction. We have to be willing to meander and get distracted. Can’t wait to find this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Again, thank you. After all the sincerity and honesty in my words…there were typos. So, I updated the post and then jotted in my devotional and on twitter, “Three things that keep me humble, typos, thin hair and burnt cookies.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “The great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life.” Cheers to her for pointing that out…and cheers to us for our continual efforts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, David. It seems your review of the review is justified. I’ll need to get this book. I’m struggling with wringing out the truth from my years in Africa. Mastery is elusive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just finished the book. I’m a fan. And truth and authenticity is a key focus of her book. Here’s a few morsels…

      “Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”


      His interior is the home place for the reader, the helicopter pickup point. Whenever we wander off into some awful jungle scene, we do so alongside that richly observant speaker. It’s Herr’s desire for a solidity inside— for some truth— and his inability to get a firm grasp on that truth that keeps him fumbling around like a blind man. […]

      “Reading Michael Herr (on Vietnam) puts you in touch not just with the brutality we humans are capable of, but with some nobility that persists and persists and is made glorious by refusing defeat in horror’s presence. It’s not sweet and noble to die for one’s country, but anyone who insists on leaning into the light in the face of so much darkness enacts perhaps the hardest-won of fortitudes.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. David,
    Many who are in the search of truth, as the mathematician, often find themselves on a road that leads to a dead end. Some entire careers or lives are spent in that pursuit only to arrive at the same end. But no career or life is wasted if others are diverted from traveling those same fruitless roads now marked by these pioneers; “Do Not Enter.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love the sound of his book. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “None of us can ever know the value of our lives” This is so deeply true. I wish we all knew how much of an impact we have on each other. Mary Karr connects us to this understanding. BAH to Greg Cowles who is yet to discover this wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

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