In this week’s install­ment of the Vis­it­ing Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Tay­lor exchanged ideas around book pro­mo­tion, mate­ri­als of writ­ing, and the devo­lu­tion of the author. Read Part I here and Part II here. They have been blog­ging here all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.


I like this idea of the com­put­er being an exten­sion of [your] bed­room.” But I’m not sure it’s extend­ed enough. Because for me it’s an exten­sion of my bed­room as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too — sor­ry if that’s creepster. 

What I mean is, I’m going to hold you to your Hen­drix promise. He deserves more than 45 min.

I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your opti­mism with regard to the (oth­er) options avail­able. I would like to say the com­put­er has enlarged my world in a pos­i­tive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlarge­ment-of-world (TK Hei­deg­ger­ian Ger­man com­pound) is or could be pos­i­tive. Rather to bas­tardize Wittgen­stein I’m con­vinced that the oppo­site, not the world, is every­thing that is the case. I am too much the infor­ma­tion addict, too much the hoard­er. My head’s an uptown brown­stone ten­ant­ed by the bros. Col­ly­er, who’ve recent­ly stopped pay­ing rent.

My only hope, I tell myself, is sur­veil­lance, self-sur­veil­lance. So much of my life is lived under the sign of this lim­i­ta­tion, this autore­stric­tion. In the same way I can’t be around drugs, because I’ll take them. All of them. I’ll nev­er keep a firearm in the house (the apart­ment, I mean, not the Col­ly­er cor­tex). This is one fea­ture of my per­son­al­i­ty it’s painful to admit to my parents/​siblings/​romantic part­ners and friends/​myself, but !unsur­pris­ing­ly! less painful to admit in an email to be post­ed on a blog to be read by googo­lions, includ­ing, I’d assume, my parents/​siblings/​romantic part­ners and friends. Myself. One way I have of explain­ing this unsur­prise is through fic­tion: If I write it, then it can’t be true, ergo it is not true. Anoth­er way is through non­fic­tion: By writ­ing it, I have freed myself to live a fic­tion (denial). Regard­less, it’s a fact that there’s nev­er been an access I haven’t advan­taged. It’s also a fact that I derive a cer­tain plea­sure from the introp­uni­tive. I feel like, lamb spines aside, I should be pay­ing you by the hour. 

It’s out of this reg­u­la­to­ry impulse that I wrote Four New Mes­sages—what I told you on that dri­ve up to that crazy Jew­ish book­ery out­side Amherst still holds (I was being hon­est”). These mes­sages were meant to be instruc­tion­al, exem­plary: Emis­sion” telling you to be care­ful about what you say, any­thing and every­thing will be held against you not in the divine court/​congregation/​community mar­ket­place, but every­where — even by strangers, who are the fresh­est gods. McDonald’s” exchanges a sacred fear of words — the Tetra­gram­ma­ton, for instance — for a pro­fane fear of being labeled the type of guy who lunch­es at/​writes fic­tion using the word McDonald’s.” It’s an exer­cise in typ­ing — not with the key­board but with the mind: typol­o­gy. The Col­lege Bor­ough” warns against exoge­nous ambi­tion: beware of chal­leng­ing the world. Sent” warns against endoge­nous ambi­tion: beware of chal­leng­ing one’s self. It’s a depress­ing msg, fur­ther bur­dened with a don’t mis­take the real for the vir­tu­al ser­mon straight out of Antiq­ui­ty, whose trans­mis­sion was also wire­less.” A crude sum­ma­tion, but at your request and, again, I can’t help myself.

I’ve always loved the cau­tion­ary tale” — sto­ries where­in a hero’s felled by worst weak­ness­es in a fash­ion so schemat­ic as to put the lie to art. From Aesop to Belloc’s trav­es­ties, to Der Struwwelpeter (my father’s favorite book grow­ing up) to Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­to­ry (one of my own child­hood favs), these are moral works not just because they con­tain morals but because of why they were writ­ten, or what they were writ­ten for/​instead of (their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) (rai­son d’êtiolation): implic­it in all of them, in their very bound being, is this aux­il­iary les­son that it’s good to make good art, but it’s even bet­ter to save a soul. That’s why I chose the title, which rings to me like a com­pan­ion to How Much Land Does a Man Need? or What Is To Be Done?

Of course I under­stand how deep my tongue is in everyone’s cheek with all this didac­tic pedan­tic ped­a­gog­i­cal eth­i­cal shit. Obvi­ous­ly too I believe in art, good words (gospels) in good sen­tences, and haven’t yet dis­calced the Nikes to go a’begging. But the impulse remains: I need­ed rules for myself, I want­ed rules, and these are they — nar­ra­tized only because it was nev­er the blank prose of the NJ crim­i­nal law code that kept me out of trou­ble, but the case his­to­ries of strangers, acquain­tances, friends. 

I’d like to con­clude by not­ing that writ­ing itself devel­oped this way (the Book Coun­cil will appre­ci­ate this, trust me): the ten com­mand­ments appear only in the sec­ond book of the Bible, con­dens­ing a Gen­e­sis that less effi­cient­ly, but more effec­tive­ly, formulates/​dramatizes what hap­pens when you take a life, lie, cheat, covet.

We’ll sac­ri­fice our lambs on the mor­row and ded­i­cate all but their spines to yud hey vuv hey,


Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heav­en of Oth­ers, Caden­za for the Schnei­der­mann Vio­lin Con­cer­to and, most recent­ly, Four New Mes­sages (Gray­wolf Press). He is the New Books crit­ic forHarper’s Mag­a­zine.

Justin Tay­lor is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion Every­thing Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the nov­el The Gospel of Anar­chy. He lives in Brook­lyn and teach­es at the Pratt Institute.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. His books include the nov­els Mov­ing KingsBook of Num­bersWitzA Heav­en of Oth­ers, and Caden­za for the Schnei­der­mann Vio­lin Con­cer­to; the short-fic­tion col­lec­tion Four New Mes­sages, and the non­fic­tion col­lec­tion Atten­tion: Dis­patch­es from a Land of Dis­trac­tion. Cohen was award­ed Israel’s 2013 Matanel Prize for Jew­ish Writ­ers, and in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young Amer­i­can Nov­el­ists. He lives in New York City.