Tuesday, November 17, 2015

`It Takes Practice to Lose One's Way'

Robert D. Kaplan visited Tunisia and Sicily when young, and remains enamored. He calls them “places that drew me because of the books I read.” Lucky man, to act on such attractions when young. I knew in advance in 1985, when a newspaper job took me to Albany, N.Y., that I would track the posthumous traces of Herman Melville, from New York City, to Albany, to Lansingburgh, to Pittsfield, Mass., and back to New York City, but I’ve still never been to Lichfield, Recanati or Lwów. Kaplan continues in Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece (Random House, 2004):

“Some books show us a new world, others vindicate our own experience. Books can lead you astray, they can ruin you, they can deliver you from the strictures of your environment. Because some are so important one remembers perfectly the circumstances in which one found them, and read them.”

True, though I’ve never been ruined by a book, not even financially. Dedicated readers imprint memories on volumes. Today I couldn’t read Peter Matthiessen on a bet, but just seeing Far Tortuga on the library shelf brings back a pleasantly rainy afternoon at Kay’s Books in Cleveland forty years ago. I was supposed to be shelving but I sat on the dirty tile floor and read thirty or forty pages of the novel. A shameful but happy memory: reading Proust for the first time in the clubhouse of the miniature golf course where I worked while in college. Reading King Lear again reliably takes me back to Chambéry in summer. A reader’s truest autobiography might be a list of books read, including the ones he couldn’t finish. Kaplan continues:

“You don’t find the books that change your life by accident; nor by design. One finds them the way a ragpicker finds something useful in the garbage, or the way a hunter accidentally encounters his prey. The enterprise demands vigilance, says the philosopher Walter Benjamin: it takes practice to lose one’s way in a city in order to discover something important about it.”

I still enter a bookstore or library in a spirit of anticipation, seldom with specific titles in mind. The best catalog I know is serendipity. Murray Kempton quotes Louis Armstrong as saying, “There’s kicks everywhere," and I know from experience that can be true even of the crummiest Harlequin Romance-heavy yard sale. At a library sale I once found a battered first edition of On the Road, a book I detest, but I bought it for almost nothing and walked two blocks to a book dealer I knew, who ensured I could pay the rent that month. Kaplan recounts a cold crossing from Marseilles to Tunis, and remembers lines from Virgil’s Aeneid in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation: “The sun went slanting round the mighty year, / And freezing winter came, roughing the sea / With northern gales . . .” Then he writes:

“With this journey, I acquired the habit of searching for books linked to the landscapes and seascapes through which I traveled. Reading became like surgery: a way of dissecting the surrounding landscape and my own motivations for being there.”

To broaden Kaplan’s point a little, we might think of our lives as landscapes requiring map and compass. Rather than “dissecting” I would suggest “reading” the landscape with the help of, among others, Dr. Johnson, Leopardi and Zbigniew Herbert.

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