Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin 

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

Emperor of the Air 

  • Age, it seems, has left my wife alone
  • The elm was dying. Vera was gone, and I lay in bed thinking of the insects, of their miniature jaws carrying away heartwood
  • I didn’t think I was a sentimental man, and I don’t weep at plays or movies, but certain moments have always been peculiarly moving for me, and the mention of a century was one

The Year of Getting to Know Us 

  • I hadn’t wanted to see the counselor. Anne and I have been married seven years, and sometimes I think the history of marriage can be written like this: People Want Too Much
  • “You don’t have to get to know me,” he said, “because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to be me.”


  • When the deodorant commercials come on the set he turns the TV off. That’s the way he is. There’s no second chance with him
  • The ones who carry knives are the ones who hang out in front. They wouldn’t cut anybody but they might take the sidewall off your tire. They’re the ones who stopped at tenth grade, when the law says the state doesn’t care anymore. They hang out in front, drinking usually, only they almost never actually come in to see the movie

Where We Are Now

  • Too much money makes you lose sight of things
  • I’d been reading books. Not baseball books. Biographies: Martin Luther King, Gandhi. To play baseball right you have to forget that you’re a person; you’re muscles, bone, the need for sleep and food. So when you stop, you’re saved by someone else’s ideas. This isn’t true just for baseball players. It’s true for anyone who’s failed at what he loves
  • You can sleep next to a woman, you can know the way she smiles when she’s turned on, you can see in her hands when she wants to talk about something. Then you wake up one day and some signal’s been exchanged—and you don’t know what it is, but you think for the first time, Maybe I don’t know her. Just something. You never know what the signal is.

We Are Nighttime Travelers 

  • What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth. What holds you to what you see of me is that grasp alone
  • when I recall my life my mood turns sour and I am reminded that no man makes truly proper use of his time
  • Time has made torments of our small differences and tolerance of our passions
  • And as for conversation—that feast of reason, that flow of the soul—our house is silent as the bone yard.
  • Francine is at the table, four feet across from my seat, the width of two dropleaves. Our medicine is in cups. There have been three Presidents since I held her in my arms
  • For me this is futile, but I stand anyway. The page will be blank when I finish. This I know. The dreams I compose are the dreams of others, remembered bits of verse. Songs of greater men than I
  • A bicycle tire: rimless, thready, worn treadless already and now losing its fatness. A war of attrition
  • but when I gather my memories they seem to fill no more than an hour. Where has my life gone?
  • But of all things to do last, poetry is a barren choice. Deciphering other men’s riddles while the world is full of procreation and war. A man should go out swinging an axe. Instead, I shall go out in a coffee shop.
  • But how can any man leave this world with honor? Despite anything he does, it grows corrupt around him. It fills with locks and sirens
  • Have I loved my wife? At one time, yes—in rages and torrents. I’ve been covered by the pimples of ecstasy and have rooted in the mud of despair; and I’ve lived for months, for whole years now, as mindless of Francine as a tree of its mosses.
  • I have never written a word of my own poetry but can recite the verse of others. This is the culmination of a life. Coryphaena hippurus, says the plaque on the dolphin’s tank, words more beautiful than any of my own
  • I have mean secrets and small dreams, no plans greater than where to buy groceries and what rhymes to read next, and by the time we reach our porch again my foolishness has subsided. My knees and elbows ache. They ache with a mortal ache, tired flesh, the cartilage gone sandy with time

Pitch Memory

  • That day became the meridian of my mother’s life. For a year she wept at red lights and at drawers that didn’t close. She began coaching my sister and me about the viciousness of the world, and she began feeding us a whole new kind of diet

American Beauty 

  • she doesn’t know what to do with what she knows
  • It seemed to me that all of them, she and my mother and Lawrence, had suffered a wound that had somehow skipped over me

The Carnival Dog, The Buyer of Diamonds

  • He let the knowledge collect around him, in notebooks, binders, pads, on napkins and checks, everywhere except in his brain. His room was strewn with notes he never studied. Once in a letter home he said learning medicine was like trying to drink water from a fire hose.
  • That was why Myron wanted to quit medical school. He hated the demise of the spirit

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