Review of What Do I Know? Wisdom Essays by Jack Remick

“We are the only species that cannot just be.”

Jack Remick, What Do I Know? p. 63

With What Do I Know?, Jack Remick models how a book may be written, that it may be built by setting a clock, sitting with a pen or pencil and paper, and converting the thoughts circling and spiraling in one’s mind into these squiggles one reads. What Do I Know? is a collection of 31 short essays of similar length, 5 to 6 pages. Remick wrote most of the essays to a clock set for 45 minutes. Several begin with his familiar entry to this practice of timed writing, “Today I am writing about …” “The Wisdom of Myth” begins with a funny or sad (maybe both) corollary line in this practice, “Today, I have no idea why I am here at the table pretending to be a writer” (p. 109).

The writer persists. The process works, book as evidence.

To emphasize The How of the writing, the essays appear in the chronological order of their writing. Their titles track this practice, each with a double heading. “The Wisdom of Myth” is also “March 4.” Another indicator of the chronological organization of the book: the author’s current reads flow into his current write. These present-moment reads tackle new evidence in genetics and the sciences of sex and evolution. What Remick has read may underpin the essay. His prior readings span the ages and his literate lifetime. Among others, Marcus Aurelius and Diderot influence Remick to this day.

Jack Remick’s erudition allows him to write these essays in the course of timed-writing sessions. Few humans have the background to summon these references from memory. During revision Remick likely double-checked his references, but his familiarity with them has me doubting the need. (His erudition also displays itself in his diction. Keep a dictionary close by. I had to look up a bunch of words. Two examples: idiolect and enantiodromia.)

The How of the writing, embedded in the book’s shape, reflects the collection’s content, the explorations of what wisdom means to Jack Remick, recorded over time. The collection lays out mind-over-time as Remick digs into the questions: “What is wisdom? How do we get it? How do you know if you have it? …” (p. 22) over the months of his writing process. These questions crop up in many of the essays because this is how minds work. They revisit mysteries. A few replies become stalwarts: “Wisdom … is knowing what to do, knowing when to do it, and … knowing what not say, what not to do.” (p. 72), “To be wise is to know what you don’t know.” (p. 143).

The What of the writing Remick labels as pensées, (the translation loses meaning in its lack of direct correspondence). They are thought pieces, meditations on a topic, “The brain … trying to understand itself … to see how it got here” (p. 125), and the brain choosing this method to declare itself : “I write to exercise my mind,” (p. 123). Intention is part of each sentence Remick writes. He says we write and read to experience other lives without leaving our chairs. Each pensée may be such an excursion.

While the essays may show mind process and revolve around what mind means, they enter Remick’s mind through tangibles of his experience, as in “The Wisdom of Tools: The Mason,” which documents the labors of a mason tuckpointing at Remick’s house and “The Teeth Always Remain,” which delves into human history and includes my favorite of the author’s images, teeth as stones in the mouth.

I struggled to come up with works to compare to What Do I Know? and believe it unique among books in examining a concept in a real-time, linear fashion, although Remick’s hand does not move at the speed of his thoughts. All is approximation. (I think of playwrights who aim for real-time scripts or movies such as My Dinner with Andre.) Then Anthony Doerr’s Seattle Arts and Lectures talk on the construction of his most recent novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, came to mind because I was later to meet a friend who works for SAL. Doerr described his attempts to construct his novel, story within story within story, to mirror his learning about the development of storytelling and its loss and preservation on this planet. Remick works to do the same with the concept of wisdom within the expanse of human existence.

The Wisdom Essays of What Do I Know? made me think about subject matter I seldom give much thought (e.g. ancient Athenian government, trends in world deaths from warfare). They made me argumentative at times, which had me researching topics I seldom consider. They made me ponder my own definition of wisdom. They made me consider aging and legacy, the brevity of life, our fragile existence, what it is we mean, and what it is we should be doing with our lives. They made me wish to communicate to Jack Remick, The Who behind What Do I Know?, how much gratitude I have for him, his writing, and his teaching.

The philologist begins the book with the etymology of “wise” from the Online Etymology Dictionary: Old English wis, “learned, sagacious … The power of discerning and judging rightly …” and a tricky quotation from Lao Tzu that distinguishes wisdom from knowledge. As Remick studies this particular word, its concept and its meaning, he shows us his mind over time examining the language. He checks with what he has read—perhaps while acquiring degrees. He discusses with his friends Robert Ray and Dennis Must. He listens to his wife Helen. He looks for examples from his parents. His mother’s wisdom felt innate to him when she identified Helen as the right fit to become his life partner. His father, with multiple patents and specialized knowledge in the field of mining and processing, chose to take his particular wisdom with him rather than write treatises on his subjects. He told his son he intended to take these to his grave. Remick analyzes interactions with children and grandchildren. He looks in all these social and academic venues. He looks to the present-day sources of daily news and current literature and science. He looks in more unexpected territory, his own stories’ characters. How did they choose? What did they deem wise? (I posit this is one form of Remick reviewing his own take on wisdom over time because his fictional characters might be seen as alter egos of their creator, regardless of how unlike him in their behaviors. Their ideas sprang from his consciousness.)

In What Do I Know?, Remick questions what motivates his own kindness. He talks of a desire to be loved, not to be good. Maybe doing what it takes to be loved is a part of what makes us good. It makes him good. In his goodness, his practices, his dedication to family and work, his life-long learning, his curiosity, and his search for meaning, Jack Remick models great and lasting wisdom, relevant and essential.

(What Do I Know? Wisdom Essays by Jack Remick, Sidekick Press, Bellingham WA, 2021, 194 pp.)

A partial bibliography for Jack Remick:

The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery with Robert Ray
Josie Delgado
Gabriela and the Widow
(Seattle Star review)
Doubles in a Game of Chance
Terminal Weird
Lemon Custard
Pacific Coast Highway
No Century for Apologies
S.B. VpmR
One Year in the Time of Violence
The California Quartet: The Deification
(Seattle Star review), Valley Boy, The Book of Changes, Trio of Lost Souls

Categories Literature

Pamela Hobart Carter loves Seattle as much for its water and mountains as for its bustle and creativity. She explores the Emerald City daily while walking her dog. Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side.

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