“My problem is the opposite: I find the world too interesting. This means that I am all too easily distracted, like a child confronted with too many good things to eat. I pursue things that interest me until something else distracts me, which means that I master nothing. But at least I am not bored.”
Like Dalrymple, I’m a happy generalist, too dazzled by the world’s sack of gifts to settle down as a specialist. While window-shopping at a thrift store he spies, and buys, a book about owls and another devoted to Richard III. This brings to mind my own varied interests, reflected in the books stacked on my bedside table. Starting from the bottom and working my way up, here’s some of what I’m reading:
Hallucinations (Knopf, 2012) by Oliver Sacks, who turns eighty in July and is among the most consistently interesting writers alive. His prose is crystalline. Like Dalrymple, he finds the world “too interesting.” He’s best known for his neurological case histories but my favorite among his books is Oaxaca Journal (2002), his account of a fern-hunting expedition to Mexico. In Hallucinations, among other things, he describes his own use of psychedelics and other drugs when young, which he neither condones nor celebrates. Rather, he reports with clinical precision both the terror and the ecstasy.
A Field Guide to the Ants of New England (Yale University Press, 2012) by Aaron M. Ellison, Nicholas J. Gotelli, Elizabeth J. Farnsworth and Gary D. Alpert. Some of the introductory matter is silly (“ants are important, fascinating, and cool”), but this oversized field guide is beautifully laid out and dense with photos, drawings and maps. More than most field guides, this one relates it subject to its geophysical environment, meaning the rocky soil of New England and its long winters.
Ancient Greek Lyrics (Indiana University Press, 2010), translated and annotated by Willis Barnstone, brings together three earlier volumes of Barnstone’s translations. It starts with Archilochos in the seventh century B.C.E. and continues through Pindar and the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. In his author’s note, Barnstone says: “Poems in ancient Greece were composed primarily to be sung, chanted, or recited, to be heard, not read.”
Oak (Reaktion Books, 2013) by Peter Young. Another beautiful example of bookmaking. Young is described as “an independent scholar” who has already published Tortoise (2003) and Swan (2007) with Reaktion. He writes: “Above all the oak, even when elderly and supported by crutches, stands out from all other trees in imparting a feeling of sound continuity.”
The Merchant of Venice.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (Chapman & Hall, 1957) by Evelyn Waugh. I picked it up again because Sacks praises it in Hallucinations as "an autobiograhic `case history' of a psychosis, an organic psychosis, albeit one written with a mastery of observation and description--and a sense of plot and suspense--that no purely medical case history has." Waugh on his title character: “His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz – everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion, sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.”