Monday, October 14, 2013

`Some Quicker and More Reliable Form of Escape'

A longtime reader is back in Africa after a spell in the U.S., now in the Congo near the Rwandan border, “between a live volcano and a sinisterly gaseous lake, near a militia wreaking havoc in the countryside.” His is a life I can’t imagine. I’m too soft, too inured to American amenities like indoor plumbing, dentistry and the variably reasonable assurance that no one will kidnap my family today. Most of my adventures are safely interior events. Speaking of which, my reader adds: 

“Books: I've succumbed to electronic form because of the weight of real books for a traveler.  The ten works on my e-reader at the moment are: The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, Immortal Poets (another anthology by the same editor), Complete Works of Chekhov, two novels of Colette, a trio of Henry James' works, Alice Munro's selected, Pinsky's Singing School: Learning to Write and Read Poetry by Studying the Masters, and poems of both Stevens and Wilbur.” 

Prudent fellow, balancing mass against density of sustenance, like choosing pemmican over celery for a wilderness hike. It’s worth noting that the English mass is rooted in the Greek for a barley cake or lump of dough -- nourishment. I’ve not made the e-reader leap but might if posted to a remote location without library or internet access. The Seashell Anthology is new to me, and its editor, Christopher Burns, is described by as “a long-time media executive and reader of poetry. A former Army officer, an amateur musician, and a father of five, he served as Senior Vice President of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Vice President of the Washington Post Company, and Executive Editor of UPI.” In other words, a seasoned veteran of life, a man who probably knows how to pack his knapsack.
While in Virginia last week I reread three of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, the new collection of J.F. Powers’ letters, a Civil War history, some Tennyson, and odds and ends in my father-in-law’s library. Stark is ideal for airborne reading, the rest was more earthbound, like Chekhov and James. Both sorts of books get the job done. The speaker in Larkin’s A Study of Reading Habits” (1960) famously says “Books are a load of crap,” meaning, in context, approximately the opposite of the words’ literal meaning. In a letter to Dr. P.D. Pumfrey written on Feb. 22, 1985, Larkin writes:
“The poem describes how people who embrace reading as a form of escape through self-dramatisation ultimately are led to see themselves as they really are, and turn from reading to some quicker and more reliable form of escape (drink). So many people seem to think that the poem’s last line is a serious expression of opinion by me. It is, in fact, highly ironic.” [quoted in The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin by the editor, Archie Burnett.]

No comments: