The Spectator Bird

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started The Spectator Bird. I love Wallace Stegner’s writing, so I trusted that it would be good, but I didn’t realize how much it would make me think about the life I’ve lived so far. The book is about a retired publisher, Joe Allston, who digs out old journals from a sabbatical he spent in Denmark just after his only child committed suicide.

Joe’s wife insists he read the diaries to her, and they relive the experience together and through those memories confront some difficult emotions and experiences. Joe is cantankerous, he’s aging and he doesn’t like it, but through the reading of the diaries, he and his wife put to rest some of ghosts from their past.

Some people, I am told, have memories like computers, nothing to do but punch the button and wait for the print-out. Mine is more like a Japanese library of the old style, without a card file or an indexing system or any systematic shelf plan. Nobody knows where anything is except the old geezer in felt slippers who has been shuffling up and down those stacks for sixty-nine years. When you hand him a problem he doesn’t come back with a cartful and dump it before you, a jackpot of instant retrieval. He finds one thing, which reminds him of another, which leads him off to the annex, which directs him to the east wing, which sends him back two tiers from where he started. Bit by bit he finds you what you want, but like his boss who seems to be under pressure to examine his life, he takes his time. (loc 501)

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line. You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window. (loc 2797)

…I had a fatalistic sense of how delusory are the options that seem to open during the course of a life. In an instant, the opportunities that open like the eyelids of someone rousing from coma can close again, and be closed forever. Even if the eyes stay open after death, you can look into them and see not a glimmer of what for an instant was revealed. Close them, weight them with pennies. (loc 3165)

t is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle. (loc 3483)