Zinsser on Friday

The Last Word

With his last two entries, a revered journalist, teacher, and essayist says goodbye

By William Zinsser | December 23, 2011

The Overtone Years


The number 88, referring to the number of keys on a piano, hovers in our collective memory. I remember a character in a Dick Tracy comic strip named 88 Keys, and I’ve listened to honky-tonk pianists who call themselves “Mister 88” or who “tickle the 88s.”

As anyone who ever played a piano knows, the 88-note keyboard is our universe, bounded by the highest note that the ear can comfortably enjoy and the lowest note that a crazed Russian composer might compose. To venture beyond the wooden frame that encloses those 88 notes would be to fall off the earth.

Earlier this fall, if asked my age, I could say that I was just as old as the number of keys on a piano. Then, on October 7, I wasn’t. I had outlived the standard Western keyboard and the largest piano. But then I was told that Bösendorfer, the Austrian manufacturer of sumptuous concert grands, makes a 9-foot, 6-inch model that has nine extra keys at the low end of the scale. I was saved! I had entered the Bösendorfer years.

Those nine extra bass notes almost never get played. But they give the piano a deeper and darker tone because their “strings,” which are made of wire, are longer and thicker than the longest strings on a standard piano. They therefore generate overtones, which produce resonances with compatible notes of higher frequency farther up the scale.

So the Bösendorfer years are overtone years. That’s as it should be—old age is mostly overtones. Older people have long since played all the necessary notes and musical forms: the joyful capriccios at the birth of a child or the graduation of a grandchild, the somber Bach fugues at the inevitable visits of disappointment and death. We are left only with the overtones of those long-gone events—their endlessly overlapping echoes and vibrations.

As a fourth-generation New Yorker I live with overtones wherever I go. I pass the apartment where my parents lived to their own old age, and the Herald Tribunebuilding where I had my first job, and the office where my wife came out of the Midwest to work for Life, and the various places where our children went to school and where we all went to church on Sunday. Those places send sympathetic ripples across the decades—intermingled memories of happy and productive times.

Today my city has been dimmed by glaucoma; the landscape is hazy. But my shoes still know the way. Every morning I walk from my apartment to my office, skirting long-familiar potholes and Con Edison excavations, and when I arrive I go to my computer, formerly an Underwood typewriter, as I always have. There I am anchored in my craft. The irrelevancies of the world close down around me and I’m alone with my materials, as the painter is finally alone with his canvas and the potter is alone with her wheel. I now write this column mainly from personal experience and remembered detail, not from external sources. I turn on my computer and I listen for overtones.




With this column I’m saying goodbye to you and to “Zinsser on Friday.” After almost two years of weekly deadlines it’s time to change the rhythm of my life. I want to try a more informal kind of online writing—on my own website, williamzinsserwriter.com. Look for me there in the new year.

I thank you for your friendship and your trust. I was a lifelong child of print journalism who abruptly plunged into the black hole of electronic space. In 2010, when I proposed to The American Scholar that I write a weekly blog, I had never even seen a blog. My editors, Robert Wilson and Allen Freeman, took me on faith and never wavered as I groped toward what I felt was the right length and shape for a personal essay on the Internet. During that process I learned many things about writing that I don’t seem to have known before—mainly how to stick to the intended point of every column and not wander down seductive side trails. Your generous comments kept me company and kept me reassured.

All 82 of the “Zinsser on Friday” columns will continue to be available here at theamericanscholar.org, and I invite you to revisit them, especially the many that deal with the hard and lonely task of writing. They will remind you not to write for the wrong reasons—marketplace reasons that crush your true identity. Give yourself permission to believe in the validity of your own narrative.

A selection of “Zinsser on Friday” columns will be published in 2012 by Paul Dry Books. I hope the book will make what used to be called “bedside reading.” I’m assuming that people still read in bed.

My best to all of you in your various life quests. Don’t forget to keep stretching your capabilities.

Bill Zinsser

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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