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nonrequired reading – prose pieces

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002
ISBN # 0-15-100660-1
233 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2013

Wislawa Szymborska is primarily known as a poet. However, she took a job writing reviews for a literary magazine in Poland for some years. It appears that the column had a fairly strict word-count for the reviews since each is almost identical in length, just about 1 ½ typed page.

In this volume (one of several from her columns) there are 97 reviews in 233 pages. That’s 2.4 pages for each.

Szymborska makes it clear that she had no intention of writing traditional reviews. Rather, she comments about each book and in her very limited space, gives a sort of creative interaction with each book. At the same time she is having lots of fun. She avoids all serious literature, prose or poetry, and most serious science. She chooses to write about an astonishingly wide variety of non-fiction.

Overall I found the reviews to be intelligent, engaging, funny, and insightful and a joy to read. It took a while for me to get used to the pattern, but once I knew the basic structure I could flow with her crisp and challenging commentaries.

Below I comment on some of those which I found especially interesting or just plain fun! The overwhelming bulk of the books are in Polish and many are not likely to have been translated. It is the reviews that are the fascinating reading, not necessarily the books she reviews.

In “The Importance of Being Scared,” which is a review of a reissue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Szymborska defends his writing of scary stories for children and she argues the virtues of their impact. She is reacting to the modern gospel of non-scary stories. Oh my, I thank her for siding with the scary stories which I still love and regret that my own grandchildren are so socialized toward the non-scary that I can’t tell them the stories I so enjoy. Unlike Szymborska I don’t have the courage to change, but in sort of a quiet protest, I just don’t tell stories to them any more at all.

“Shortchanged” is a review of the book “Instinct or Experience”. She complains that we lack an instinct which most animals have and profit from:

“The instinct for withholding blows. Animals often fight within the bounds of their own species, but their battles as a rule end bloodlessly.”

Reviewing a book about making and tending terrariums, she points out that she will NEVER do or have such a thing and is only reading this book because she likes to collect useless knowledge. Despite her tone and humor, she makes the book sound fascinating!

In a review of a history of fashion the author creates one of her memorable sentences. The author had divided fashion as occurring in 5 periods of government – Primitive Community, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism. However, on Szymborska’s reading the author failed to demonstrate this. She writes:

“The problem is that you can’t unlock dresser drawers with the key to the main gates of the city.”


“The Scales of Justice” is a page and half review but is also a paean to Szymborska’s talent. In about 1 page she retells one story from the book she’s reviewing. Her short retelling is so gripping that I would guess a huge portion of her readership would have rushed out to buy the book. And the book is a history of paleontology!!!

“Talking Pictures” was another of my favorites. This is a review of a book on the Chinese alphabet and is hilarious. She wonders how long children have to go to school to learn enough pictures and then concludes:

“. . . what does a Chinese typewriter look like? For the time being, I imagine it as an object the size of a locomotive transporting eighty brisk stenographers from place to place. In that case, the sign for stenographer would combine ‘woman’ with ‘dragon.’”

While I found this very funny, I don’t think it’s all that different from learning words in English or any other language. As a freshman in high school I recall vividly my embarrassment and horror when one of my classmates asked a question of our algebra teacher, who had just told us how the class would work and what would be his expectations of us. The boy asked “will such and such suffice to fulfill the requirement?” And I had no idea what “suffice” meant. I thought my academic life was over. Thus I began a 30 or so years’ project of learning the words of English and added many thousands of words to my vocabulary. I can’t see that it’s much different than adding a Chinese “picture” symbol especially since they are all very abstract as words in their appearance as a collection of letters.

In her review of a book on the Seven Cleopatra’s Szymborska amuses the reader to no end with the very complex family intermarriages. It was so complex that I found myself giggling and singing the 1940’s amusing song: “I’m my own grandpa.” Heck, Cleopatra’s family line was so contorted that even a “she” might have been her own grandpa.

Her glowing review of a Polish translation of Samuel Pepys has made me want to read the English original. That’s a powerful testimony to a reviewer whose review can so move the reader.

Szymborska’s simply hilarious review of the book Birds of Poland shows how some bird names would fare in poetry. Her examples are simply side-splitting.

Despite her protestation that she’s “just a poet” who really can’t read history and such, she delivers a brilliant historical critique of a book celebrating France’s Catherine the Great and treating her as an important and positive French leader. Szymborska vehemently disagrees with the author.

While she is extremely funny at times and often quite humble in her alleged ignorance of many things outside the realms of poetry and literature, she generally shows her significant erudition and detailed knowledge of history, science and other areas of knowledge in the books she reviews.

She criticizes Carl Jung for assuming (naively and preposterously on her view) that the dream one has and the narrated dream upon waking are one and the same.

In a review of a book about Ella Fitzgerald Szymborska celebrates Ella’s carefully controlled voice and compares it to more current times (review was written after 1995). She says:

“She always kept a little distance from the text; she never worked the song into a lather. And thank heavens. I see this as yet another leaf for her laurels. Expressive singing is a slippery slope: once you’re on it it’s hard to get off. We’ve now reached (I hope) the final phase of this expressiveness. We no longer listen to singing but to the screeching of strained voices for which any kind of musical finesse is meaningless, and is replaced by bass-boosted decibels.”

The author’s at her top form of her wit in reviewing a book by Dale Carnegie:

“His advice is reasonably well-meaning. It may even help certain people under certain circumstances up to a certain point for a certain period of time. But the author’s vocabulary lacks terms such as ‘perhaps,’ ‘occasionally,’ and ‘if.’ His optimism is unbridled and takes at times an orgiastic shape. This kind of faith instantly whets my skepticism and my suspicion that the absence of all worry would be even worse than worrying.”

Reviewing a book on caves, she again gives me such joy:

“The first to discover caves were of course those animals who could find their way in the dark. Cavemen, who had already lost this gift, couldn’t venture too far into their caves. They had to stick to the edges. It’s not that they didn’t have the nerve, they just didn’t have flashlights.”

Reviewing a book about melodramas, Szymborska is again at her comic best. She derides the clichés of the genre with her cleverness and wit of a high order.

Commenting on about button collecting she cites a great problem for most collectors:

“They (the collectors) have real trouble, though, in locating heirs for their collections. A family rarely appreciates the legacy left behind by a dotty granddad.”

Oh my, this struck close to my heart and as I age I think of my hundreds of books, my collection of Dogtown history materials, my massive numbers of files, and perhaps, saddest of all, my respectable start at a serious family history. I suspect much of the above won’t outlast me more than a few years at best.

The last entry in the book is NOT a book review, but a column she wrote in honor of her own 90th birthday. It was about her history of knowing, at first from a distance, and later, much later, as a friend and younger colleague, the great Polish poet, author and Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz. I read that entry in rapt attention. Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz are two of my favorite poets. I wish I had more of their works in English.

This collection of very short book reviews is a complete joy and lark. One learns a good deal about a wide variety of topics while having lots of fun along the way. It all comes packaged in tiny doses. A wonderful read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett