Monday, November 26, 2012

`A Map of Busy Life'

“When I Was a Child,” the almost-title essay in Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), quickly moves on to address the West and the fate of American individualism, among other things, but it begins beguilingly with a memory of her Idaho childhood: 

“When I was a child I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists.” 

I’m beguiled because Robinson is describing the way I read as a boy and, in general, continue to do so. The only difference is one of degree. My taste in books was and is, I suspect, more indiscriminate than hers. My reading has always been serendipitous and without plan, though strongly loyal to favorites. Robinson continues: 

“Surprising as it may seem, I had friends. Some of whom read more than I did. I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms.” 

We’re defined by our tastes, though they can evolve and sometimes regress. Mine as a boy included the American Civil War (still a fixation), entomology (ditto), field guides of any sort (ditto, again) and the Battle of the Little Big Horn – all bookish fancies not unusual for a boy of my time and place. Books are reliable supplements to a less-than-optimal reality. I appreciate Robinson’s understated dismissal of “relevance,” the bane of true reading. The only relevant books are the ones that hold us. In Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of his masterwork, The Task (1785), William Cowper describes the arrival of the postman, “the herald of a noisy world.” This is England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Among his deliveries is a book, a precious gift:        

“This folio of four pages, happy work!
Which not ev'n critics criticise; that holds
Inquisitive attention, while I read,
Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair,
Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break;
What is it, but a map of busy life,
Its fluctuations, and its vast concerns?” 

Robinson and Cowper were born on this date, Nov. 26, in 1943 and 1731, respectively.


Gary of Nairobi said...

This is uncommonly good material. Where else are we to find it?

Anonymous said...

Books, like music, had a magnetic attraction for me as a child. I have followed my nose as a reader these many years and hope that with advancing age, neither my nose nor my eyes will fail me until the end.