(A more capacious mind than mine could doubtless do both, but then one can’t have everything.) I am not in any way above money, or unaware of the pleasures in accruing it, the prestige of possessing it, its usefulness generally.
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In a story of Stefan Zweig’s called “Buchmendel,” I came upon the following fascinating sentence: “Jacob Mendel was the first to reveal to me in my youth the mystery of absolute concentration which characterizes the artist and the scholar, the sage and the imbecile; the first to make me acquainted with the tragical happiness and unhappiness of complete absorption.” Have I ever known such absorption? Just now I am absorbed in writing this essay, but I shall soon be called away from it to run an errand, lunch will follow, and then perhaps I’ll watch a bit of the Cubs–Brewers game later in this weekend afternoon.
Many years ago, in a biography of Hannah Arendt, I read that every afternoon, in her Upper West Side apartment, she set herself down on her couch and thought for an hour. One assumes it was about one or another of the great general philosophical problems, or a question of historical interpretation, or something to do with a book she was currently at work on.
To this day I cannot read financial reports—even about the fate of my own money—without my eyeballs turning to isinglass; instead, I search out the bottom line amid all the bumpf, and walk away ignorant about how the profits or losses I have enjoyed or suffered over the past month or fiscal quarter came about.
I suppose I could, a pistol at my head, learn the stock market, but to do so I should have to forget about reading such works as Mommsen’s four-volume History of Rome, and the sacrifice doesn’t seem worth it.
Over the years I have been able to find jobs that allowed my short attention span to work to my advantage.
As a young man, I slipped into editing jobs on general magazines and on an encyclopedia—butterfly work if ever there was any—then later was hired to teach at a university in a job where, since I neither had any advanced degrees nor wished for tenure, it was understood that I needn’t show any pretensions to the concentrated mental work called scholarship.any of us are born with attributes that slightly, sometimes greatly, set us apart: unusual strength, musical or artistic ability, skill with numbers, mental quickness, good looks.My own two attributes have been excellent physical coordination and a short attention span.Quarterly magazines that once allowed articles of 8,000–10,000 words began to tell their writers to keep it to 3,000–5,000, with photographs and pull-out quotes added.Descending to the more middlebrow, popular door-stopper novels of 900 and more pages of the kind James Michener used to regularly produce—Hawaii, Texas, Alaska—today they would not get off the press.Along with business, a career in medicine or law was never remotely available to me.