Pantheon, 412 pp., $37.95, hardcover.
Lawrence Weschler is all about connections. Introducing his latest essay collection, Vermeer in Bosnia: A Reader, the Pulitzer-nominated author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (and current director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU) explains why he can't write fiction. That's despite possessing passionate interest in it and writing skill enough to work as a New Yorker staffer and to contribute to publications from McSweeney's to Warsaw's Gazeta Magazyn. It is, he argues, "because for me the world is already filled to bursting with interconnections...interrelationships...dense to the point of saturation. That's what my reporting becomes about: taking any single knot and worrying out the threads." Expanding this thought, he tells us of the cabalistic idea of tsimtsum, the concept that for God to have created the world when he was already everywhere, he had to absent himself, breathe in, in order to leave room for this new creation; it's simultaneously an analogy for writing fiction and a prime example of Weschler's own art of correspondences.
In the title piece, part of a "Baltic triptych", he asks an Italian lawyer serving on the war-crimes tribunal at the Hague how he copes with the daily litany of horrors, and his response--view the local Vermeers as often as possible--prompts an inspired parallel. Weschler balances, on the one hand, the turmoil of Europe in Vermeer's day and the qualities of peacefulness and personalization his paintings exude in response, and, on the other, the need to individualize present conflicts, to resist generalized demonizing, as a necessary step to peace.
From familiar subjects like Roman Polanski to the more obscure, like Jerzy Urban (a Polish political oppositionist turned martial-law government spokesman turned publisher of a journal equal parts Frank and Hustler), Weschler always eyes the world with deeply felt humanity, intellectual curiosity, passion, and a sense of wonder that is thoroughly, delightfully contagious.
Who else could talk about the quality of light in L.A., reveal how Orthodox Judaism inspired Leonard Nimoy's hand symbol for "live long and prosper", and recount the dilemma of a parent supporting his eight-year-old daughter's belief that the Borrowers were alive and well and living in their house?