Thursday, December 16, 2010


December 16, 2010

Our front porch is enclosed and semi-heated, although it faces northwest and nothing facing northwest, which is where Canadian cold fronts come from, is ever going to be really warm here except in summer; but it doesn't matter, we don't use it anyway even though I have a large desk there. I actually work upstairs. The large desk mostly holds the bills. And the room itself holds books. When people walk in through our front door they pass through this room, and it is not uncommon for them to say, I love this room, or words to that effect. They have a vision of themselves taking a year off and finding a nice chair someplace and burrowing through the books to their hearts' content, nothing to stop them from reading and reading, and reading some more.

I had lunch with my friend Ken Robbins today and he told me about somebody he knows, or knows of, whom he calls a "peripatetic reader." This is a person who reads while he walks, holding a book in front of his face as he ambles down the street or across the room; he reads, he says, up to 18 hours a day, and at the same time manages to navigate the world. Remarkable. As a result, says Ken, he's incredibly erudite. I also would sometimes like to be incredibly erudite, drop appropriate quotations into conversation, add facts to arguments that completely destroy one position or maybe its opposite, call in examples from Darwin or refer to Shroedinger's cat while discussing Keats: dazzle, in short. I've never been particularly dazzling. Not aggressive enough, too unsure of my ground. My trouble is that I never think I know enough. I have all these books, 7,000 of them, but I don't pretend to know all that much. Well, OK--sometimes I do pretend, but in fact I'm well aware of my limitations.

The truth is, it's not all that easy living with so many books. They sit on your shelves and stare at you, wanting your attention. You look at a book you decided to keep when it came in for review and you wonder, what happened to the great interest I once had in this subject? and you realize, the interest has faded. Or it's there, dormant, but you don't have time for it now. And it's not just the time reading takes. I sometimes pick a book off my shelf to read and find that I've already read it; the margins are pockmarked with my notes. Yet I have no memory of what's in the book, and I don't remember when I might have read it. Are the filing cabinets in my brain full? Can nothing more be jammed in there? And books do take so much time. In the midst of life, bedeviled by errands, meals, friendship, sleep, movies and TV, parties, gardening, and the endless task of straightening up the house, it might take months to read a really long book. It took months to read Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder, which I loved; but it was a really long book, I had to fit it in to my other work, and into my life, and it took months. Who has months? Sometimes I think I should have just one book, or a few. Three hundred years ago most people had a Bible, and not much else. Maybe a Book of Common Prayer, or an almanac. They would know those books extremely well, I imagine. Whereas I know a great many books, none of them well at all. If I had to confine myself to a hundred books out of my library, which ones would I choose? Probably they would all be classics, books that the experience of centuries of readers has certified as what lasts. But think of the difficulty of so drastically refurnishing one's mind! I might be too old to do it. The fox knows many things, as Tolstoy said, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Well, I'm a fox by nature. I can't be content to know just one thing well; I have to know a great many things, if only superficially.

I've had two significant dreams about books in my life. In one, I came upon a large tower of books, a four-sided bookcase three feet taller than myself, and all the books in it were bound in leather, they were eighteenth-century books, and they were mine. But they were ruinous. Water damage, fire, something had ruined them. In the second, a similar event: upstairs on the third floor of my dacha was my library, low bookshelves under the windows on all floor walls of the room. They were all in Russian. But the roof was open to the sky and the books were soggy, unreadable, papier mache. I have no idea whether these dreams about books have any significance. But they were deeply disturbing, and I have not forgotten them.

And at the back of my mind, Socrates, who professed to know nothing, and was always asking his pupils for instruction and then reasoning with them to show them that they, too, did not know what they thought they knew. That's one reason, perhaps, why history attracts me--at least it's over. It's not still happening. It's fixed. But of course it is still happening; history drives through us like, to mangle Dylan Thomas's line, the flower drives through its green fuse. We are the fruit of all the centuries before us, and what those centuries were, what they meant, is not revealed until we come along, and understand it at last. And, obviously, this is a continuous process. So, Socrates: there is no solid knowledge. We drift about on a sea of uncertainty, and for the most part this sea is far too deep for any anchor to find bottom. I could read all 7,000 books in the house and I would not be any closer to wisdom.

Well, maybe a little.