He reads, until the chapel clock strikes five,
And suddenly discovers that the book,
Unevenly, gradually, and with difficulty,
Has all along been showing him its mind
(Like no one ever met at a dinner party),
And his attention has become prolonged
To the quiet passion with which he in return
Has given himself completely to the book.”
Seasoned readers will understand. Good books –books we reread and even buy, for ready access – are suffused with mind. We anthropomorphize them, turn them into neighbors, friends, family. I know many books smarter and significantly better company than many people I meet, at dinner parties and elsewhere.
At the junior high school where I’m working for the next month, during a lull when my student was collaborating on a story with another, I tried to finish rereading Transparent Things, a favorite among Nabokov’s novels, one I received as a present for Christmas 1972, one I was nudged by Nige into rereading:
“It seems a perfect condensate of Nabokov's genius, his late masterpiece, containing a hint at least of everything that makes him great, while striking out in what seems a novel and strange direction.”
The boys were getting louder, attracting attention, egging each other on with increasingly violent plotlines for their story, riffing on shards of Star Wars, H.P. Lovecraft (they loved saying “Cthulu”), Monty Python (“holy hand grenade of Antioch”) and what I took to be video games. I was irked, having reached that point late in Transparent Things when I was moved effortlessly by the narrative but dreading its imminent conclusion – a state, like life, sweet and tormenting. I had to step in because the boys, seated beside a rack of public-health pamphlets in the classroom, were working some of the titles into their story – “What I Really Mean When I Say No to Sex” and “Abstinence and Oral Sex.” The teacher was sweating and I couldn't finish the Nabokov until I returned home.
The lines quoted at the start of the post are from Thom Gunn’s “His Rooms in College” (from The Passages of Joy, 1982). The last three lines suggest the erotic pull a book can wield – “quiet passion,” “give himself completely.” Nabokov writes in Transparent Things:
“A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. More in a moment.”