Daniel Menaker


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

You wrote that the book “is generally prosaic, As most such intellectual treatises perforce tend to be.”

In what sense are you using “prosaic”?

And if these types of treaties have a proclivity to be so, are being critical of Harris for being true to the form he chose to present his argument?

Duane Skelton

Dear Mr. Skelton,

I was using “prosaic” in what I think of as being one of its most common meanings, when applied to writing–ordinary, undistinguished.  I didn’t mean to be critical of Harris for his “prosaic” style–though I do believe such treatises can occasionally have a more stylish presentation–see Milton’s “Areopagitica,” any of George Orwell’s essays. (But both of those  examples are almost as exhortative as they are logical arguments.)  I was just trying to let the reader know what general kind of writing he or she would encounter in “Free Will.”

“Free Will” is, for the most part, closely reasoned and, to me, persuasive.  That it isn’t thrilling writing may be in some ways a good thing. Harris is trying to make his case in a straightforward, no-frills way.  When he does attempt to be “literary,” or ironic, or rhetorical,  the effort often falls a little flat.

Thank you for writing–your question is a good one.  It’s true that we shouldn’t  criticize, say, a grocery list for being nothing more than a grocery list.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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More About Free Will

Monday, July 16, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

If the physics of the universe is deterministic–as people used to believe prior to the advent of quantum mechanics–then the absence of free will is a corollary.

But how does Sam Harris address the–apparently–non-deterministic physics that quantum mechanics implies? (Or does he avoid that issue altogether?)

Michael Pace

Dear Mr. Pace,

This blog is supposedly about ordinary conversation, but it’s great to widen the definition of “conversation” in this way–heaven knows that the subject of free will has produced a huge amount of written and spoken conversation, a lot of it heated and angry.  So let’s have at it, peacefully:

Mr. Pace, your question, insofar as I understand quantum mechanics–which is, sadly, for my car, about as far as I understand auto mechanics–is a good and prevalent one. The short answer is that Harris says very little if anything about the role of quantum mechanics in the functioning of the human brain/mind. The slightly longer answer is, according to what I’ve read, that if somehow the randomness of quantum mechanics underlies human brain function and thus decision-making, then our decisions are even less the products of our “will” than they would be if they were neurologically caused by activity that overrides quantum randomness.  Do you see what I mean? Do I? I think so but am not sure. I’m not a professional philosopher or neuroscientist–or physicist–but it does seem sensible to say that if our brain functions and choice-making result from random, or at least unpredictable, subatomic processes, then the amount of our minds’ agency in such matters appears to be reduced to zero.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

Dear Dan,

In response to your ridiculous review of a ridiculous book by Sam Harris:


Just turn your head slightly and you’ll see.

Michael Fox

Dear Professor Fox,

I don’t actually like Harris’s book much, especially not as any sort of literature, even though I agree with its basic position on this matter.  The Opinionator piece you link to is excellent, but it seems to me to beg a lot of questions.  It might be interesting for us to discuss that piece and this whole issue further, but if possible with a little more civility than your comment displays. Still, I appreciate your response to the review.  Hackles-raising is not the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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“Are You Still…?”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dear Dan,

How can one respond effectively to the question “Are you still writing?” without some tone or other creeping in?

Meanwhile, I am happy to keep track of you via this blog, and I am eagerly waiting for My Mistake.


Dear Katharine,

Nice to take time out from oncology for a few minutes, and very good to hear from an old friend and excellent writer, Katharine Weber.

Well, are you? People want to know!

Seriously, the problem with this question, and, potentially, any question that starts with “Are you still …” (perhaps most famously, this variant:  “Are you still beating your wife?”) is that it may, in the voice of the asker and/or in the ear of the hearer, contain an accusatory or critical undertone.  As in “Are you still writing [or have you finally given up this folly]?”  Or “Are you still writing [or have you finally realized that you’re not very talented]?” Or “Are you still going to the gym [or do you realize that your case is hopeless]?” Or “Are you still friends with Jack [or have you finally realized what a bad guy he is]?”

It may be a legitimate question, unfreighted with insult or indictment. In fact, even though I share your sensitivity about this matter, I’ve come to believe that most of the time it actually is an innocent question and could even be a hopeful one.  But if we, as writers (or gym-goers or friends of Jack) are having problems ourselves, like writer’s block or a rejected manuscript or a poor sales track or being fired, then we’ll often hear some kind of negative note in that question.  So before we attribute an unpleasant motive or boorishness to the asker, we should probably look at our own psychological state about what we’re doing or not doing–writing or not, using the elliptical or not, going to Jack’s picnic or not.

But if you don’t have the time or temperament for this kind of self-assessment, here are three possible and foolproof answers to the question:

Not at the moment.

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Philosophy of Mind

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I loved your letter concerning Tom McCarthy’s review. I’m so glad to see you are as philosophically sharp as ever.

I myself gave up the attempt to understand the gap between the neurological and the conscious 15 years ago and retired from philosophy. I got a degree in marriage and family therapy and have been working in the trenches ever since. The mind-body problem still exercises me, but at very practical level. I love being a therapist.

I try to keep up on things, although I must say there has not been much philosophical progress on this issue, in my opinion. I did just bring out a second edition to my “Philosophy of Mind” book on Kindle. That was a lot of fun.

Dan, I have followed your career with great pleasure. So nice to see you flourish in so many ways. I hope this finds you well.

Best regard,
Jerry Shaffer

Dear Jerry, if I may–

Thank you for your note and the kind words about my letter in the Times. For anyone else reading this repsonse, Jerome Shaffer is a brilliant teacher and philosopher whose student I had the excellent luck to be in college. He went on to be Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut for many years and, as you can see, is now a therapist. My only conversational response to his post would be that as I think he is somewhat slyly suggesting, the mind-body problem does indeed tend to become more acute as one gets a little older–at least insofar as the body has more of a problem with what the mind wishes it could do. I highly recommend Dr. Shaffer’s “Philosophy of Mind” to anyone even remotely interested in the issues of consciousness and will and the history of ideas about such subjects. His courses have deeply affected the way I and thousands of other people think and live and–yes–converse.

My best,
Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Double Negative

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dear Dan:

Why not attribute the anecdote recounted on p.169f. to Sidney Morgenbesser (responding during a talk by J. L. Austin)?  Fairness, plus greater pungency, would both accrue.

There’s even a Swarthmore connection: Morgenbesser, before his long and distinguished career at Columbia, taught at S’more.

This quibble aside, I very much liked the book.

Peter Walch

OK, I herewith attribute the anecdote to Sidney Morgenbesser and I thank Peter Walch for the suggestion, and for the kind word about the book.

Speaking of double negatives, the professor who taught me in my Milton seminar at Swarthmore, Thomas Blackburn, once roasted me for writing that some point of criticism was “not uninteresting.” He didn’t like me in general, and vice versa.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

For the last few years, my wife and I very much enjoyed your interviewing at BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series.  In fact, if we had to decide between writers appearing there to round out our annual choice of five programs, we would favor whomever you were interviewing.  I was disappointed to see that you will no longer be participating there in 2011.  Have you lost interest in interviewing, or had that particular gig just played itself out for you?

Harry Kaplan

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan,

Thank you for the kind note. It seems that BAM and the National Book Foundation have a policy of rotating interviewers out every two years, and I’ve had my two. I have to admit that I was disappointed myself, as I really love that audience, that venue, and that occasion. It seemed to me I got better and better at the job and enjoyed it more and more, but I guess policy is policy–unless there is an UPRISING OF THE MASSES demanding that I be returned to the podium.

In the meantime, I’ll be content with this wonderful compliment–it is very kind of you to have written.

My best,
Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Renewed Zest

Monday, September 13, 2010


I read your book, A Good Talk, last night – I’m a fast reader – and I have to tell you that I loved it!  I found myself thinking that what I was having was a good conversation with an intelligent, insightful and revealing friend.  Way to go – good writing at its best as far as I’m concerned.

Here are the parts I liked best – the CHI – I loved how you identified these three attributes – Curiosity, humor and impudence as being what creates a lively and interesting conversation. I totally agree but don’t often find this – many people have one or two but seldom all three, at least here in Denver, not the most intellectually stimulating place on earth, what with all the faux cowboys and ski bums.

I liked how you revealed yourself too and didn’t hide behind your credentials as a celebrity writer from the New Yorker but showed your self to be a flawed human being like the rest of us.

I also liked what you said to Ginger when you told her she would need to be aggressive and annoying in order to get herself heard and responded to as a writer – that was really good advice for an up and coming writer or one who wants to be.

Anyway, it was a great book and I loved your style – I’m a writer too and this little book inspired me to make some changes in my own approach – not that I will be copying you – we all have our own voice, as they say, but I shifted in my perspective when I woke up this morning and now I feel a renewed zest for getting back to my project.  So thank you and keep writing.


Dear Lorraine Banfield,

Thank you for the extraordinarily kind note.  Being a writer, the best kind of writer, is indeed to be in a conversation with the reader, even though the reader is silent. The job of a writer is not only to tell a story or report on events or suggest ideas but to remember that there is a reader involved as well, and that he or she is actually talking to the reader, and anticpating questions and asnwering them at just the right time, and varying sentence length and tone, and expanding a point of view–providing surprises that have been earned. When you read a really good book or magazine piece, you are drawn in not only by the content but because the writer knows that he or she must hold your attention and think of what questions you might want to ask at which points and figuratively take  your hand and guide you through the material in an entertaining and disciplined way. If you think I did one-quarter of that, I’m flattered.

I wish you luck with your own work and hope to see your name on the bestseller lists someday. It’s a hard road, and, these days, more than ever an unpredictable one. But contributing to our culture of letters, in a major or even minor way, remains a worthy goal.


Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Merci Encore Une Fois

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thank you for sharing you!   You are v Mark Twainish.   I laughed my way thru most of it and actually had a great conversation on a beach here in Door County WI with a park ranger while I was reading the book after bouncing in the waves…I am curious and at least wry,  I plan to be more impudent because I have had emotional surgery of the heart, have found a sort of enlightenment and am glowing, so what the hell…behaving hasn’t worked.  Is good conversation ever the best?!   It’s what I miss more than sex (well most of the time) since the cause of the surgery of the heart said bye-bye.  Merci encore une fois, you rock, and I agree totally about raising the level of gettingalongness in the world.  It’s what I’m writing about in a special way.

Julie Amelie

Dear Ms. Amelie,

Thank you for the compliments about the book–they are much appreciated. And I’m sorry to hear about the emotional cardiac surgery, which I assume was painful. You haven’t exactly asked a question, but within your energetic and delightful prose lurks a small fear that the surgery may have impaired your ability to converse.  But since you also mention having struck up such a gratifying spontaneous talk with the park ranger, my guess is that you’ll be fine. Time heals most wounds, even to a ventricle or auricle.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Borrowing Jokes

Monday, May 03, 2010
Dear Mr. Menaker,
Just writing to tell you how much I enjoyed “A Good Talk…” I’m featuring a little bit more about the book and your (wonderful) writing on my blog this week. Thought you might like to take a look:
Wishing you much continued success. BTW, will you ever return to fiction writing? Sure do hope so.
Kathleen Gerard

Dear Mr. Menaker,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, “A Good Talk” and laughed out loud on repeated occasions (doesn’t usually happen with books).  Your easy writing style made the words flow off the page just like we were chatting.  Enjoyed it immensely!

The bit about religion didn’t resonate but that would require a conversation for another time.  I might suggest Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” to contrast Christopher Hitchen’s “God is Not Great”.

Hope you won’t mind if I borrow some of the jokes.

Pete Gullo

Dear Mr. Gullo,

After such a complimentary and flattering note, by all means borrow my jokes. Thank you very much for writing, and I will definitely look at Nouwen’s book.

The tradition of borrowing (or stealing) other people’s wit or wisdom in conversation is of course an old–and I think for the most part honorable–one.  It’s an implicit compliment to the originator (if he or she really is the originator; you never know), and it shows a close attention to and understanding of what one has heard. It helps to explain why comedians are always joking about stealing jokes. And someone smart isn’t going to run out of new things to say–it’s not as though you are robbing money from his bank account.

And if you’re really super-ethical, you can always attribute the joke to the source after you crack it and get the laughs. That way, you win twice: the good response to the joke and the admiration of honesty. But maybe not in my case, because if you said, “I got that from Daniel Menaker” you might well get “Who?” in response. Not quite as resonant as Daniel Webster, perhaps.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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