“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 introductionto a one volume English translation of WistawaSzymborska's Nonrequired Reading:

I am old fashioned and think that reading books is themost glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. HomoLudens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikesposes, dresses up, revels and performs elaborate rituals.I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these attractions—withoutthem human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and, possibly,dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities, abovewhich drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collectivegymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as freeas he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rulesof the game, which are subject only to his curiosity. He’spermitted 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, whilestarting another at the end and working his way back to thebeginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop shortat words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally,he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—toeavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dipin the Mesozoic.

I reprise it here, in part, because I am reminding myselfthat—in what I view as shadowy times getting shadowier—thereis something to be done against the shrieking din of thisimpending "inevitable" war whose prosecution bya group of cynical and arrogant men is additional evidenceof the oligarchic governance that is in place this fragiledemocracy.

Winter for me is decidedly a season of discontent. That othersof my species can gain some joys from this dark and cold timeis yet another cause for pursuing the issue of human quintessence.But not today. (As you might guess, large sections of my memoirDelayed Satisfactions are devoted to this compellingsubject.) The allure of skiing and ice fishing and woolens(even cashmere) and ruddy cheeks and whatever else are signsof the bounty of this quadrant of the year, escapes me. Andbeyond that, as a resident of New England, I still cannotunderstand how my fellows seem to go into either catatoniaor some hardware-store spending spree at the mere whisperedmention of a snowstorm. That is, if anything were ever whisperedanymore.

One might conclude this would be a time of year when it ismost likely that an avid—perhaps ravenous—readersuch as myself would hunker down and let loose the dogs ofinquiry and curiosity or whatever pack of instincts and driveskeep them surrounded by and preoccupied companions of a textualgender. Not so for me. Though I am not sure how my time isaccounted for, it seems that I actually do more reading inthe Spring and Summer (perhaps the longer days, more light…).

In any case, I have been thinking about my literary dietfor the first two months of the year. Exaggerating to makea point, if I didn't read another (good) book for the restof the year, I would still feel like I had done pretty wellalready. I have only read sixteen books (perusing the latestissue of BookMagazine, which contains the clever idea of focusingon readers, and they list one reader who claims to read thirteenbooks a week.) Almost all have been challenging, instructive,and in some instances, moving. Best of all, I feel as if Iam avoiding various doses of anxiety and revulsion that Ifelt victimized by when I watched television and the insidiousand idiotic information it transmits.

Colum McCann's Dancer(a novel based on a character named Rudolph Nureyev), BrianHall's I Should Be Pleased To Be in Your Company(a novel of the Lewis and the Clark of that famous early 19thcentury expedition), TC Boyle's Drop City (a novelabout a 1970 commune) and Will Self's Dorian (a self-describedimitation 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 realperson(s). In Self's book, that reality is certain socialset of the late '80s and early '90s. In addition to beingwell-crafted stories, these writings spurred me to thinkingabout the fiction/non-fiction fault line. The results of thatthinking remain mute and inchoate at the moment perhaps readyto burst out in some Tourette's-like verbal spasm at somedinner party.

Ray Shannon's Maneater, The Defection of A.JLewinter by Robert Littell, Soul Circus, thenewest book by George Pelecanos, James Carlos Blake's hot-off-the-pressUnder the Skin, and Michael Thomas' Hanover Placewere all fast-paced narratives that categorizers tend to placein the genre-fiction niche. Despite the disparaging wordsthat one author I talked with recently had for so-called genre,I found quite a lot to recommend these books. Maneateris funny in that sidereal way that Elmore Leonard amuses.It's about Hollywood, which has its own built-in amusementsand which, again, Leonard made good use of in Get Shorty.George Pelecanos brings back Derek Strange of Strange Investigationsand crusades for some rational gun control as he patrols thegang turf of the District of Columbia. Baker's Under TheSkin takes us back to the Texas-Mexican Border aroundthe period when Pancho Villa was whooping it up and beingchase by a gringo army and others. Part of the story linedid remind me of Jim Harrison's novella Revenge—whichis not a bad thing.

Three books were emphatically deep forays into the interior.The inestimable Frederick Busch'sA Memory of War tells of the disintegration of thelife of a middle-aged psychotherapist. Did his mother bearan illegitimate half brother? Is his wife having an affairwith his best friend? What happened to the young patient hewas treating who became his lover and then disappeared? Allquestions in the service of story that riveting. First novelistKristen Waterfield Duisberg presents a twenty-eight-year-oldwoman in The Good Patient who seems bent on variousmethods of self-abuse and destruction for over half her life.Her husband is frantically concerned and her latest therapisthangs in with her while she tries to grasp what has happenedin her life. And Sherwin Nuland's Lost In Americais a wrenching and harrowing account of growing up with adisturbed and disconnected immigrant father in America inthe '40's and '50's. Dr. Nuland, in his late thirties, foundhimself in a deep depression that required his hospitalizationfor a few years that led to him almost being lobotomized.This is a clear and honest memoir and I think important asa model of emotional honesty.

So, as I review what I have read to date in 2003, I am pleasedto see that I have not succumbed to any kind of programmaticimpulse. That is, besides reading the Woodward hagiographicBush book, I have avoided the growing bibliography on theBush Presidency. I have read no books on Islamic fundamentalismor who took my cheese or Chicken Soup for Dummies. The readinggoes on in the intuitive and scatter-shot way it always has.That probably explains why it is still fun after all thistime.

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

The best thing for being sad...is to learnsomething. That is the only thing that never fails. You maygrow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awakelistening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss youronly love, you may see the world about you devastated by evillunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baserminds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn.Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the onlything which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, neverbe tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream ofregretting.


Untitled #7 by Robert Birnbaum

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