Thursday, January 17, 2008

`A Near Spiritual Hunger'

My friend’s widowed mother is in her nineties and lives by herself in Connecticut. Like my friend she is a lifelong inveterate reader and has in recent decades devised a highly focused reading plan. She reads, or rather rereads, the work of Jane Austen, Henry James and Marcel Proust (in French) in perpetual rotation. Her husband was an academic, and so is her son, but she is a dedicated amateur, one who reads out of love and joy. I thought of her while reading My Mentor, a memoir of William Maxwell by Alec Wilkinson, who writes:

“Reading was a near spiritual hunger with him, and he spent the last few years of his life reading hours a day, going back over the books he had loved.”

Knowing this, one wonders how and why people, young and old, spend their days watching television or surfing the more worthless regions of the Internet. Self-respect and a sense of gratitude call us to higher things. Time squandered is an affront to creation, and which promises us more: The American Scene or American Idol? Health and wealth permitting, I foresee old age as the period when I will finally get serious about reading, when I will at last read The Tale of Genji and return gratefully to Gibbon. Edward Hirsch reports Maxwell (who died in 2000, age 91) saying:

“I once said to Joe Mitchell that the only part about dying that I minded was that when you are dead you can’t read Tolstoy.”

Or Chekhov, Shakespeare or Joyce. Or William Maxwell.

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