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Published: Fri Oct 15 1982
Art by Jin Suk
Chekhov’s Fancy

_         _You can’t really think about life, not in the way you think about other things, what to make for supper, where to stop for the night. If you try you just get very tired.
_         _Life scurries, bending low, keeping to dark corners. When you look to the right it hurries past on the left. It is a most gentle, timid, changeful creature. It will hold its own little cough until you take out your handkerchief—you never, ever hear it.
_         _As for hiding places—well, life loves words the best. It flies through the holes in the alphabet like a circus flea. Sometimes you open a book and catch it by surprise: it is sprawled out over a whole page, or else curled up in an O like Diogenes in his barrel.
_         _The mirror is another favorite spot. Life hoists itself into the glass so that it can watch you. You stand, gaping, feeling the tremble in the air. You think: Those are not my eyes! They’re not. What you don’t know is that to those eyes you are a god. You go crashing through space so assuredly. You reach for something and close your hand right around it. Life flutters its lashes, awed. You have the true freedom. You can turn around. You don’t have to watch as the shape gets smaller and smaller or see its primitive little face suddenly covered with hair. You stride forward, oblivious to its sad, faraway salute.

See what's inside AGNI 17

Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)

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