Monday, December 19, 2011

`Happy in Himself'

“I'm one of those readers who love old and sometimes half-forgotten books and who do a lot of rereading, one of those who shun best sellers and can't understand their fellow travelers opening shiny volumes that they bought 10 minutes earlier in an airport bookstore.”

Adam Zagajewski transcribes my thoughts during the flight from Houston on Friday. I spent most of the five hours rereading Richard Yates’ A Good School (1978). My seatmate, a woman of about my age, divided her time between playing solitaire on her laptop and reading what appeared to be fiction on another handheld device. I’m guessing, of course, because she didn’t encourage conversation (fine by me) and because I could see blocks of text on the screen, short declarative sentences, many in dialogue form. Among our fellow passengers, also engaged in “opening shiny volumes,” she had much company. In his novel, set in an Eastern prep school in the nineteen-forties, Yates refers to “the tireless, self-renewing business of horsing around.”

Zagajewski is among the fifty readers who, on Saturday, told the Wall Street Journal “what they enjoyed reading in 2011.” Especially enticing are the titles suggested by Richard Holmes (the great Coleridge biographer) and Marilynne Robinson (soon to publish a collection of essays appropriately titled When I Was a Child, I Read Books). Zagajewski selects the Scottish poet John Burnside who, he says, “creates a world in which dreams and realities mix up, and yet we recognize in his verses our thoughts, aspirations and reveries.” In the first stanza of “The Good Neighbour,” Burnside describes one sort of reader:

“Somewhere along this street, unknown to me,
behind a maze of apple trees and stars,
he rises in the small hours, finds a book
and settles at a window or a desk
to see the morning in, alone for once,
unnamed, unburdened, happy in himself.”

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