Friday, June 23, 2017

`Reread, Reread'

Taste in books must be fickle before it can be enduring. Few of us fall lastingly in love with anything (sheer numbers are against it), and infatuation is overrated. The reading life more closely resembles a string of one-night-stands than long-term commitment, especially for those who read a book once and throw it away. It takes some of us forever to spurn Hemingway and set up house with Henry James. Here is James Michie’s “Good Books, Bad Times” (Collected Poems, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994):

“Good books in bad times (for all loyalty ends)
Can turn their backs on you, like close friends
Who don’t know half the truth, and from the shelf
Cut dead the miserable anorexic self
That’s lost its appetite for words, that finds
Print inflicts snow-dazzle, and the mind’s
Capsized by logic, and one paragraph
Of the funniest man on earth can’t raise a laugh.
To stop loving, or being loved, is to stop
Reading, is to stop. Woodland becomes backdrop
And weather mere performance. Then books stare
Like stuffed predators with a blameless air
Of enmity.
        Men, women, you dog-eared lovers
With wine-stained pages and much drabber covers
Than when you were brightly bought, before you secede
From the old union, reread, reread.”

I knew James Michie (1927-2007) as the translator of Martial and Horace but he was a poet in his own right, a friend and colleague of Kingsley Amis. I’ve remained immune to the malady he describes. I’m often fed up with individual writers and books but never with reading (sheer numbers are against it). No, not all loyalty ends. Some has hardly started. I read William James’ The Principles of Psychology many years ago (at the suggestion of Steven Millhauser), but have hardly scratched at the twelve volumes of his letters. And I still haven’t gotten around to Browning’s poetry and The Tale of Genji. As Michie reminds us: “reread, reread.” Fourteen years have passed since I last read The Golden Bowl.

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