Wednesday, January 07, 2009

`The Furniture of Other Minds'

A Canadian reader, after the dustup sparked by the “Best American Fiction, 1968-1998” list David Myers and I assembled, asks:

“Finally, a question: Where does James Salter fit into your considerations? I've always enjoyed his writing. Don't worry, Patrick, I won't throw a tantrum and start posting on other sites if you don't share my estimation of him. I'm just curious how more experienced readers than myself perceive Salter. I 'discovered' Salter long before I'd ever heard of Malamud or Bellow, so there's one reason he quickly sprung to my mind when I read your list. Incidentally, there's something to discuss another time - how do readers encounter great writers. For myself it was from lists such as the one you and Mr. Meyers have compiled. I've never met anyone who has talked about reading Bellow or Malamud.”

I’ve read several of Salter’s novels, including A Sport and a Pastime, around which a cult of devotees has assembled. I interviewed him 11 years ago and he signed a copy of his memoir, Burning the Days, as a gift to my father-in-law who was a pilot and remains interested in aviation. Salter was restrained and plain-spoken, like his fiction, and I’ve read nothing else by him. That’s it – no distaste, no spark.

I’m more interested in the other question Jonathan poses: “how do readers encounter great writers?” Naïve? Not really. Lists can be helpful but misleading, depending on the list makers, their motives, the extent of their reading, their tone. Are they sharing enthusiasms or proselytizing? Are they generous or snobbish?

With Jonathan I could have said, “I've never met anyone who has talked about reading Bellow or Malamud.” I came from a family of non-readers, though I didn’t start autonomous reading from scratch. There were fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories, whatever caught my eye or ear in the library. William Gass calls this “shelf-shopping.” That’s how I first read Kafka, Dickens, Tom Disch, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, Herbert Gold, Sax Rohmer, Freud, Ezra Pound and others – a magpie’s nest of authors chosen according to happy serendipity. While looking for one book, Gass says in “A Defense of the Book,” he finds another:

“But right beside it, as well as two shelves down and five volumes to the right…well, I discovered another gold mine. That is why I stroll through the encyclopedia, why I browse the shelves. In a library, we are in a mind made of minds – imagine – all man has managed to think, to contrive, to suppose, to scheme, to insinuate, to lie about, to dream…here…within reach of our hand.”

I still use the library that way, walking through the front door with a list of titles in hand, finding them and drifting purposefully. Books are promiscuous. Books beget books. Poe led me to Baudelaire, Proust to Ruskin. I was the first in my family to go to college, where I wandered the largest library I had ever visited. I can no longer trace the thousands of connections but I know George Steiner connected me to Elias Canetti, Herman Broch and Paul Celan, and through Hugh Kenner I met Wyndham Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Later, already in my thirties, Guy Davenport became a reliable scout. My favorite professor was a scholar of 18th-century English literature and her love of Sterne, Pope and Dr. Johnson proved contagious.

So, “How do readers encounter great writers?” A purposeful trust in the vagaries of chance is a good start. It helps to be an omnivore, at least at first. Fine-tune the bullshit detector and learn who you can trust. Don’t worry about occasionally getting burned. You don’t have to finish reading every book you start. Accept no one else’s taste as gospel. Know what you enjoy and what’s tiresome. On that final point, another friend wrote Tuesday evening:

“I read in large part to experience what is impossible otherwise--the furniture of other minds.”

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