Touchstones: Memories of People and Place, by James McNeish (Random House, 2012), 295 pp., $30.
The publicity material and preliminaries of James McNeish’s recent book Touchstones hedge about its origins and purpose. He is the reluctant author, according to an interview in the New Zealand Herald (August 1, 2012). The book is the idea of other people, namely his publisher and his wife; he, in fact does not like ‘writing about myself’.
McNeish is not writing ‘orthodox memoirs’, only ‘a relevant character sketch’ of himself, he states in his Author’s Note. An epigraph borrowed from Mark Twain warns the reader not to expect any motive, moral or plot. On the following page is a dictionary definition of ‘Touchstone’ as ‘Criterion. A standard of judgement’.
McNeish traces in Part One, which is entitled ‘People’, the intellectual and emotional education he gained in his early career from contact with nine people, each of their names the title of a chapter. These mentors are presented in snapshots, their presence brief and sometimes fragmentary. Some of these reminiscences are memorable, but quite often there is a sense the author is straining for significance. The pattern manufactured from a compound called ‘touchstone’ is stamped upon the raw material of a memoir.