Monday, August 22, 2011

`Something Dangerously Close to Our Own Life'

The morning passed with a book review finished, emails answered and an article about a professor’s retirement drafted. By then I longed for a reward so I picked up Stephen Kampa’s Cracks in the Invisible (Ohio University Press, 2011), his first collection of poems, and found one that made me laugh, Not at the Grave of Dylan Thomas,” which concludes like this:

“Besides, as mentioned, I’m
Not at the grave of Dylan Thomas,
And I don’t care about childhood, grief, time,
Rage, or excessive commas.
I hate prophetic poets; they are wrong.
They ought to call
A spade a spade, stop stringing us along.
Death does, indeed, have dominion over all.”
Kampa’s razzing at Thomas’ neo-Romantic silliness lifted my weary spirits, so to prolong this happy state I opened Love of the World: Essays (Faber and Faber, 2009) by the late John McGahern, one of my favorite fiction writers of the last half-century, and read a piece titled “The Solitary Reader” (1991), which begins encouragingly with this sentence:
“I came to write through reading.”
How else? I might ask, but I know there are other routes, and know of writers who hardly read at all. As a boy in rural Ireland in the nineteen-forties, McGahern was given “free run” in the library of the Moroneys, eccentric and lovable neighbors who didn’t read the books they owned –
“Scott, Dickens, Meredith and Shakespeare, books by Zane Grey and Jeffrey Farnol, and many, many books about the Rocky Mountains. Some person in that nineteenth-century house must have been fascinated by the Rocky Mountains. I didn’t differentiate. I read for nothing but pleasure, the way a boy nowadays might watch endless television dramas.”
One of the pleasures of reading “for nothing but pleasure” is meeting, unexpectedly, people like ourselves – in this case, a smitten reader, one who instinctively fended for himself, foraging, trusting his own bookish instincts and tastes. McGahern gives one of the best descriptions I know of helpless childhood reading:
“There are no days more full in childhood than those days that were not lived at all, the days lost in a favourite book. I remember waking out of one such book in the middle of the large living room in the barracks to find myself surrounded. My sisters had unlaced and removed one of my shoes and placed a straw hat on my head. Only when they began to move the wooden chair on which I sat away from the window did I wake out of the book – to their great merriment.”
“Wake out of the book” – that precisely renders the deep dreamy enchantment of childhood reading, and occasionally today’s. I sense no nostalgia here, no burnishing of memory. Often when a writer recalls his childhood, in particular his experience of books, the result is unconvincing. We sense he wishes to impress us with his precocity. McGahern is too serious a writer, too unmindful of pleasing the reader (as opposed to respecting him), to give a damn about such things. Inevitably, we lose our innocence, in literature as in everything else, and we come to read differently. McGahern is good on this too:
“A time comes when the way we read has to change drastically or stop, though it may well continue as an indolence or pastime or drug. This change is linked with our growing consciousness, consciousness that we will not live forever and that all human life is essentially in the same fix. We have to discard all the tenets that we have been told until we have succeeded in thinking them out for ourselves. We find that we are no longer reading books for the story and that all stories are more or less the same story; and we begin to come on certain books that act like mirrors. What they reflect is something dangerously close to our own life and the society in which we live.”

Every worthwhile book, in my experience, is a dangerous mirror, and a good reader is brave or at least willing to learn.

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