Wednesday, December 16, 2015

`It Is Good Fortune and a Privilege'

“I’m not a `lister’, but you got me thinking on it.”

That’s how Norm Sibum put it to me, apropos not of our previous exchanges but of whatever was going on in his head. Norm often fires spontaneously on all cylinders, or all synapses, a more accurate metaphor. We hadn’t been “canon-building” but he sent me a “handful of writings” he described as the “most important I've ever read, in no particular order”:

“Montcrieff’s translation of Proust;
Syme’s two-volume study of Tacitus and his language;
Gordon Williams: Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry
The New and Old Testaments;
Dante and Shakespeare, but of course;
Homer; (and Simone Weil on Homer)
Doughty’s Arabia Deserta;
Yeats, Eliot, Browning;
Darwin’s Origin of Species

It’s a poet’s list, and I’m a sucker for such things. It contains at least one surprise, Charles Doughty, who was recommended to me long ago by Guy Davenport, who also suggested Doughty’s The Dawn in Britain, which I have never been able even to begin, let alone finish. Proust is Norm’s only fiction entry. The only title previously unknown is the Gordon Williams study. By coincidence, I’m reading Tacitus (Clarendon Press, 1958) by Ronald Syme, after it was suggested to me several months ago by Joseph Epstein. In his preface, Syme includes a timely reminder:

“Tacitus insists on chance and hazard in the affairs of men, on the `ludibria rerum mortalium cunctis in negotiis’ [“their mockery of human plans in every transaction,” Annals, Book III, Chapter 18]. It is good fortune and a privilege if one can consort for so many years with an historian who knew the worst, discovered few reasons for ease or hope or confidence, and none the less believed in human dignity and freedom of speech.”

Such lists are pure autobiography, more revealing and interesting than our C.V.’s, especially when they are honest. Come to think of it, even if we’re lying, it’s revealing, for it suggests the sort of person we wish we were, or at the sort of image we would like the world to see. If I admire a writer I want to know what he reads. I have a weakness for bookish writers. In an addendum to his list, Norm tacked on Moby-Dick and Leopardi’s Zibaldone, which show up on my list as well, along with

The Geography of the Imagination
King James Bible
Zbigniew Herbert, poetry and prose
Shakespeare, Montaigne, Gibbon, Swift
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets
A.J. Liebling and Whitney Balliett
Henry James, Chekhov
Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems

at which point I cut myself off. Norm’s criterion is “most important,” which covers a lot of ground; my criteria are spontaneity of recall, frequency of return and magnitude of lasting influence. All qualify as what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” No list is definitive. Tomorrow’s will have names added and others erased. Like our lives, such lists are works-in-progress. As Norm said, “there have been plenty of, many, many, in fact, other `important writings’ which I'll always carry about in my head, and Eric Ormsby has been leaning on me to read Shelby Foote on the Civil War.” I’m tempted to put that one on my list too, which reminds me that I’m overdue for a rereading.

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