“I am old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised.” –March 2, 2003

A few months ago I came across this passage from the introduction to a one volume English translation of Wistawa Szymborska‘s Nonrequired Reading:

I am old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these attractions—without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and, possibly, dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities, above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.

I reprise it here, in part, because I am reminding myself that—in what I view as shadowy times getting shadowier—there is something to be done against the shrieking din of this impending "inevitable" war whose prosecution by a group of cynical and arrogant men is additional evidence of the oligarchic governance that is in place this fragile democracy.

Winter for me is decidedly a season of discontent. That others of my species can gain some joys from this dark and cold time is yet another cause for pursuing the issue of human quintessence. But not today. (As you might guess, large sections of my memoir Delayed Satisfactions are devoted to this compelling subject.) The allure of skiing and ice fishing and woolens (even cashmere) and ruddy cheeks and whatever else are signs of the bounty of this quadrant of the year, escapes me. And beyond that, as a resident of New England, I still cannot understand how my fellows seem to go into either catatonia or some hardware-store spending spree at the mere whispered mention of a snowstorm. That is, if anything were ever whispered anymore.

One might conclude this would be a time of year when it is most likely that an avid—perhaps ravenous—reader such as myself would hunker down and let loose the dogs of inquiry and curiosity or whatever pack of instincts and drives keep them surrounded by and preoccupied companions of a textual gender. Not so for me. Though I am not sure how my time is accounted for, it seems that I actually do more reading in the Spring and Summer (perhaps the longer days, more light…).

In any case, I have been thinking about my literary diet for the first two months of the year. Exaggerating to make a point, if I didn’t read another (good) book for the rest of the year, I would still feel like I had done pretty well already. I have only read sixteen books (perusing the latest issue of Book Magazine, which contains the clever idea of focusing on readers, and they list one reader who claims to read thirteen books a week.) Almost all have been challenging, instructive, and in some instances, moving. Best of all, I feel as if I am avoiding various doses of anxiety and revulsion that I felt victimized by when I watched television and the insidious and idiotic information it transmits.

Colum McCann‘s Dancer (a novel based on a character named Rudolph Nureyev), Brian Hall’s I Should Be Pleased To Be in Your Company (a novel of the Lewis and the Clark of that famous early 19th century expedition), TC Boyle’s Drop City (a novel about a 1970 commune) and Will Self’s Dorian (a self-described imitation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) are all very different books that have in common (for me) the connection to some purported accepted reality or real person(s). In Self’s book, that reality is certain social set of the late ’80s and early ’90s. In addition to being well-crafted stories, these writings spurred me to thinking about the fiction/non-fiction fault line. The results of that thinking remain mute and inchoate at the moment perhaps ready to burst out in some Tourette’s-like verbal spasm at some dinner party.

Ray Shannon’s Maneater, The Defection of A.J Lewinter by Robert Littell, Soul Circus, the newest book by George Pelecanos, James Carlos Blake’s hot-off-the-press Under the Skin, and Michael Thomas’ Hanover Place were all fast-paced narratives that categorizers tend to place in the genre-fiction niche. Despite the disparaging words that one author I talked with recently had for so-called genre, I found quite a lot to recommend these books. Maneater is funny in that sidereal way that Elmore Leonard amuses. It’s about Hollywood, which has its own built-in amusements and which, again, Leonard made good use of in Get Shorty. George Pelecanos brings back Derek Strange of Strange Investigations and crusades for some rational gun control as he patrols the gang turf of the District of Columbia. Baker’s Under The Skin takes us back to the Texas-Mexican Border around the period when Pancho Villa was whooping it up and being chase by a gringo army and others. Part of the story line did remind me of Jim Harrison’s novella Revenge—which is not a bad thing.

Three books were emphatically deep forays into the interior. The inestimable Frederick Busch‘s A Memory of War tells of the disintegration of the life of a middle-aged psychotherapist. Did his mother bear an illegitimate half brother? Is his wife having an affair with his best friend? What happened to the young patient he was treating who became his lover and then disappeared? All questions in the service of story that riveting. First novelist Kristen Waterfield Duisberg presents a twenty-eight-year-old woman in The Good Patient who seems bent on various methods of self-abuse and destruction for over half her life. Her husband is frantically concerned and her latest therapist hangs in with her while she tries to grasp what has happened in her life. And Sherwin Nuland’s Lost In America is a wrenching and harrowing account of growing up with a disturbed and disconnected immigrant father in America in the ’40’s and ’50’s. Dr. Nuland, in his late thirties, found himself in a deep depression that required his hospitalization for a few years that led to him almost being lobotomized. This is a clear and honest memoir and I think important as a model of emotional honesty.

So, as I review what I have read to date in 2003, I am pleased to see that I have not succumbed to any kind of programmatic impulse. That is, besides reading the Woodward hagiographic Bush book, I have avoided the growing bibliography on the Bush Presidency. I have read no books on Islamic fundamentalism or who took my cheese or Chicken Soup for Dummies. The reading goes on in the intuitive and scatter-shot way it always has. That probably explains why it is still fun after all this time.

A few years ago, Lewis Lapham closed one of his Harper’s essays with the following quote from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It is a thought that grabbed me then and it still resonates for me today and I think, everyday:

The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.


Untitled #7 by Robert Birnbaum

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