Monday, January 03, 2011

`My Mind Is Magpie-Like'

I’ve never been a one-book reader, devoting attention to a single volume at a time, and have often suspected the reason was flightiness, some constitutional inability to concentrate for long. With time and a growing capacity for self-acceptance I’ve come to understand that the world shimmers with variousness and my appetite is too keen to settle for one dish. Literature is a vast buffet not an I.V. drip.

I’m also a connector who makes linkages, across time and space, between books. No book, after all, is an island. In an essay on the nature of evil Theodore Dalrymple describes his reading strategy, and in it I recognize my own:

“Often I read more than one book at a time. When I tire of one I fly to another. This is because the world has always seemed to me so various and so interesting in all its aspects that I have not been able to confine my mind to a single subject or object for very long; therefore I am not, never have been, and never will be the scholar of anything. My mind is magpie-like, attracted by what shines for a moment; I try to persuade myself that this quality of superficiality has its compensations, in breadth of interest, for example.”

On the table beside my bed are collections of essays and reviews by D.J. Enright, John Lahr’s Notes of a Cowardly Lion, Hilary Masters’ In Rooms of Memory, the poems of Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters, and Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades by Jonathan Phillips – no fiction, I’ve just noticed. That doesn’t count material I read online and strategic sorties into books on the shelves.

Like Dalrymple, I’m no scholar of anything but enjoy learning something about almost everything. In one of his essays, “Montaigne’s Bordeaux,” Masters refers to Shakespeare as “that keenest of cullers,” and in that I also recognize myself. To cull is to select with discernment, whether the sweetest strawberry or the tartest book.


Shelley said...

Liked the "shimmering" here. Although Horton Foote's To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite film for obvious reasons, The Wizard of Oz is a close second. I didn't know about the Lahr book: thanks.

Anonymous said...

I read in much the same desultory way. I read,too, in spare minutes throughout the day, although with age I've given up risky reading habits: reading at stop lights and lengthy reading sessions while on the toilet.

My current bedside book stack contains The Supplicating Voice: Spiritual Writings of Samuel Johnson, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Cripin. (EC was the pen name of mysteries writer and musicologist Bruce Montgomery, a friend of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.)