ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Novelists can spend years polishing their work, but sometimes we can gather insight into their personalities by reading the least-polished writing that they do - in this case, letters.
Author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein recommends the private correspondence of Saul Bellow.
Ms. REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN (Author, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God"): Really. You must read this: Saul Bellow's letters. If you're a lover of prose, someone who knows how to savor the taste of a scrumptious sentence, then you'll find morsels aplenty to set your eyes rolling to the back of your head in indecent pleasure.
So, for example, in a letter to Allan Bloom, author of "The Closing of the American Mind," Bellow describes a trip to Dominick's to buy salad oil.
(Reading) Now I dragged myself over to the east side of Broadway, and a woman of 90 advanced toward me on a four-pronged cane, and then a nice police dog chained to a parking meter. He may have been asking to see the humanity in relation to which he was supposed to be a dog. We were at one in this. My tired intelligence found no trace of the hierarchy.
Here are the layered concoctions for which Bellow was famous - his flair for mixing things like salad oil and moral philosophy.
And also, if you're a writer, then you must read these letters. You might see what goes into such a being's being.
Be instructed on a writer's humility: I tend to think of a book just completed as something that has prepared me to do better next time, he writes.
And above all, if you are a student of human nature, if you are dismayed and disgusted and delighted by the infinite modifications on the human theme, then read the letters of a man who welcomed the newborn daughter of the poet John Berryman with these words: This is to greet and bless Sarah Berryman on her arrival in this gorgeous, wicked world, which has puzzled and delighted my poor soul for 56 years.
Such capacities for puzzlement and delight made for a wonder of a writer, and they make for a wonder of a book.
SIEGEL: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God." The book she says you must read is called "Saul Bellow: Letters."
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