“Cafe wit may be divided into jokes about those who are absent and jibes at those who are present. This kind of wittiness is known elsewhere as mere vulgarity. There’s no greater proof of an impoverished mind than its inability to be witty except at other people’s expense”
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
That just about rules out all comedy and satire which, to be candid, are only funny when you’re not the butt of the joke. Still …
Reading for many appears to be a pass-the-time on “my new Kindle!” while waiting for the next real activity. For some it’s about getting through titles on a bestseller list. That’s a shame because reading is nothing about ticking off bestseller lists. That is goal setting and true readers are adventurers. You cannot set milestones in an adventure because you have no idea where it will take you! So what is reading: it’s about ideas; it’s about people; it can be about plot but better it’s about human nature; it’s about language and its power, beauty, subtlety and nuance. It can also be about style (Proust) or social commentary and essays (lost art!). Reading is pleasure and more for even more than travel it expands (not just broadens) the mind.
I must confess I haven’t read a lot of popular new fiction but there is so much juice in the old ones e.g. from Lucretius (where he broaches evolution) to Thucydides to Caesar or Cicero; (Aristotle is hard) but Homer with the right translation is stunning and so is Virgil. I just finished Jared Diamond’s book Collapse and I would never have imagined anthropology as thriller: my world view switched. One reads a book like Hemingway’s The Old Man & The Sea and he wields a power that holds one spell-bound; the man was a wizard. And what of Gogol or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’m just skimming here for there are hundreds and quite possibly thousands of great books and poetry though I find the latter hard.
Personally, I find reading superior to masturbation (I do that too so I know!) and what it does to my brain is what I imagine LSD does for some people; it’s the difference between taking the blue pill and the red pill. I’m like a cosmologist granted space-time travel into another universe or I’m like the curious little bugger who walks through the looking glass. You read a book like Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red – about artists (and murder) – and your heart pounds while your subconsciously taking in some history. What a beautifully written book!
Man as protagonist: the ability to look into the human soul and capture its essence is part of the genius of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare. These guys were deep and sometimes long but books don’t have to be be 500 pages to be stunning. The Old Man & The Sea was like 100 pages and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was like 100 pages too if I remember correctly and they are both far superior to the mass of books stored on most people’s Kindles. (Nesbo? Pah! Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – superb).
Writing solely for one’s self is one extreme of a spectrum and is testosterone to the seductive myth of the toiling undiscovered genius. This is destined only for (a few) some but we all can’t be Van Gogh. I would aver that most of the greatest art in history was created with an audience, greater than one person, in mind: Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel; Rembrandt for his patrons; Shakespeare wrote for the people; Dickens serialised his novels in newspapers for the masses; the great tragedians of old, Sophocles and Euripides, wrote for the demos; the Impressionists came to public attention when they launched their own exhibition; Citizen Kane was made for an audience of 1+; it was for and to others that Astaire danced and Bessie sung (sang?) etc etc; and the greatest epic poem ever, The Iliad, was crafted and perfected by generations of poets over centuries in front of listening audiences before Homer wrote it down in his own breathtaking style.
Great artists and artistes put something of themselves into their works – that’s the part that can’t come from anyone else and is what makes their works unique. But what makes those works great is … only if I knew. JK Rowling may, supposedly, have written The Casual Vacancy for herself but even she, after the incredible success of the first Harry Potter novel, must have kept those millions of reading kids in mind as she spun out her tale to seven installments. It is therapeutic to just write and it is both healing and emancipatory to write for one’s self and from one’s own core; but it’s so orgasmic to connect to another human.
“If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: “It seemed a good idea at the time.””
– Rebecca West
I just read about a guy who averaged fifteen to twenty books a week. A week! I’m lucky to read two in that time and that’s having sped things up from about one every ten days. Granted, Lowell Lee Andrews, for that was his name, was on death row for slugging his family. Bullets: between sister’s eyes, then six in mum and seventeen into dad. No, I have no desire to kill my parents though I might have wished dad dead a few times too often for what he did or I thought he did (to be clear, not sexual). There’s a lot my parents did wrong but now I’m older, I acknowledge with some regret that they weren’t brought up perfectly either and being human they fucked up. The funny or serious thing is that they brought me up with a good moral sense and with the best education they could afford and that counts mighty plenty.
Yesterday, the email from the big chief upstairs announced impending headcount cuts citing the difficult economic environment blah blah. After the first wave of shock and fear that “this is it” (never been fired but there’s always a first time, right?) I slipped into a reverie: well, if I was laid off with a nice little sum on the side and on account of it coming up to Christmas and no one hiring, well, how many books could I read? Cold days spent in coffee shops getting warm and devouring the hundred fifty to two hundred unread books lying around and never diminished in three years, being acquired faster than they were read. The pleasure in buying a new book (paper mind you, not electronic) and flipping the pages is equivalent to a junkie on crack. Must be. Or is it? I’ve never been on crack but I have been (and still am) a book junkie. But fifteen a week! No, no, I cannot think like this! I will not murder and I do not want to be fired even for fifteen a week.
“… he keeps himself busy. His is the hyperactivity of the heroic depressive. He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms.”
– from “The Volcano Lover” by Susan Sontag
No human being, even the most passionately loved and passionately loving, is ever in our possession. On the pitiless earth where lovers are often separated in death and are always born divided, the total possession of another human being and absolute communion throughout an entire lifetime are impossible dreams. The desire for possession is insatiable, to such a point that it can survive even love itself. To love, therefore, is to sterilize the person one loves. The shamefaced suffering of the abandoned lover is not so much due to being no longer loved as to knowing that the other partner can and must love again. In the final analysis, every man devoured by the overpowering desire to endure and possess wishes that the people whom he has loved were either sterile or dead.
– Albert Camus, The Rebel