A reader takes exception to my innocent assertion that “one reads life and lives books.” Echoing something my mother told me more than forty years ago, she writes:
“You obviously spend too much time with your face in a book. That’s not healthy. You’re supposed to live life, you’re not supposed to read about it. You should get a hobby or play sports.”
She’s probably right. Think of the man I might have been if instead of sitting in that tower with my face in a book, I had waded into the hurly-burly of life and – what? Took up macramé? Played golf? I’ve never juggled books and life. They came to me interleaved and mutually complementary – symbiotic, as we say in the trade, not parasitic. If I’m a hothouse flower today, think what I would have been without Proust, Hardy and Homer. Deborah Warren does in “Dialogue with Myself” (Zero Meridian, 2004):
“I spend a lot of time in haunts not only
off the beaten track – they don’t exist:
Chez Swann, in Casterbridge, at Troy, at nowhere –
“Get a life! you say. God! What you’ve missed!Hey, yeah – let’s spend the even in a chair.
Let’s live it up with dim protagonists.
Let’s dally on the sofa with Voltaire.
It’s kind of scary (not to mention lonely)
when your entire social life consists
of ghosts and venues like a blasted heath.
Besides – I have to tell you – it’s escapist.
Life? Your life’s a kind of living death,
“you say. So do your living. As for me,
maybe I’ve seen some things you’ll never see.”
That’s an internal dialogue I’ve never had. I’ll leave it to mothers and other readers and non-readers. Warren’s final line is a reader’s triumphant non serviam – not a refusal of worldly responsibility but an assertion of bookish autonomy: “maybe I’ve seen things you’ll never see.”
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, twice elected mayor of Bordeaux, who famously retired to his tower in the Dordogne at age thirty-eight, was born on this date in 1533. The sentence quoted at the top of this post is by Jacques Barzun, as is this one, the next sentence in his review of Donald Frame’s great translation of Montaigne’s works into English:
“It is not as tags or as proofs that Montaigne multiplies classic instances; it is as a means of establishing an historical span for the truth of his observations. That is why he says `Historians are my meat,’ knowing that he was not compiling an anthology: `I speak others’ minds only to speak my own the more.’”