I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after I’ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book. For example I have iridule seared across my brain–inexplicable. Perhaps, even, inexcusable. I have no idea what it means or how it got there. It is, however, in my brain. Is there a more curious incident?
I wonder if it is because I read too much or if it is because I read too little. Perhaps my mind is not equipped for remembering all the small, minute and titillating peculiarities that I collect through my endless travels. If that is the case then I cannot help but notice that I share something similar with the Family Sciuridae. I have a romp through a book, and then at its conclusion I declare–like Milton’s Satan–that even if I do not remember, exactly, every carefully tended paragraph I still enjoyed myself. “What though the field be lost?”
The conversations I have with people, alive and in person, spare me this sort of introspection. I can neither remember what I had for breakfast–though a nearby plate confirms that it was several blueberry muffins–or what the conversation was like. I have a vague feeling of either well-contemplated execution or the lack thereof. But beyond a general feeling I cannot think of a tangible thing to say. I do not care. I console myself, ‘such is life!’ If I had a photographic memory then, of course, life would be different but I do not so it is not. But then I look over to the books I have read, boughten and–I hazily recall–enjoyed. If I had to stop and think I cannot seem to gather more than a dozen facts about them. How peculiar!
Take my last post, for instance. That definition of literature, I am now sure, was not my own. It must have come from somewhere. But from where? My mind immediately drifts through my library. It drifted towards some of the pieces of literary criticism, especially the frothier specimens, I’ve consumed over the last few years. Was it in Gore Vidal? T. S. Eliot? Michael Dirda? I quietly and quickly scanned through a few books. I have a habit of underlining the best lines. I am a squirrel, always collecting, with little or no reason. It’s actually quite bizarre.
What is more bizarre is that as I flipped through the pages more and more came back to me. Here, underlined, is one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Swift: “But not to digress farther in the midst of a digression, as I have known some authors to enclose digressions in one another, like a nest of boxes.” A digression digressing on the unpropitious use of digressions! Now located within a digression of my own making! I am sure I am not the first to think of this bemusing and amusing bit of smug diversion. But, please, bear with me dear reader.
I think my problem comes from a disease, one that is closely related to the one identified by Merton and labeled ‘insanabile scribendi cacoethes. In plain English, the itch to publish. My ailment, since I hardly publish and if then only on this blog, is the itch to read. I must read. It’s almost an obsession and must be, I believe, labeled appropriately. It is a disease. Suspend your disbelief! If only for a moment. Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato — if it is not true, it is very well invented. You must allow me that much.
My choice of reading material is not always defensible. I am sure there are people out there who find my bookshelves pretentious, a waste of time or an unpleasant mix of both. My comments follow a similar trajectory. Swift quipped that “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” I feel something similar, but when I read these little nuts that I have burrowed away inside the pages of these books. Some of my notes are informative. They have grown into trees of knowledge–yes, I am straining this metaphor to the breaking point. Some are entertaining. Some are great. Quite a few are trivial, useless and ultimately dismissible. Yet if there were only gems how I would ever distinguish the good from the bad? Contrast is key.
To get back to my original point I have found where that little, nugget of inspiration was for my attempt to elicit a chuckle–or, at least, a grimace–from you, dear reader. It is found within, of all things, the (new) introduction by Mary Russell to A Canticle For Leibowitz (Eos Paperback Ed. 2006). The first page no less! What are the chances that of the books that I picked up, randomly, from my bookshelf the one that I turn to has it? If there is any need for proof of a disturbingly sentient subconscious, I think I have it. I can only wonder how many other, small tidbits and large ideas–or, at least, a few of the former–have I been accidentally borrowing from other authors? How many authors out there have committed preemptive plagiarism on me–to pull from Merton’s OTSOG?
I doubt I will ever know and for that I can only thank whatever higher power exists in the world. Ignorance, sometimes, is bliss. But, if nothing else, then at least trying and failing mightily in the world of reading is better than a life of bare economic necessity. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that since cows may be purely economic it is “why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” If there is a ever going to be a book about myself, or at least about people like myself–precious, precocious and smugly self-satisfied residents of the United States–at least it will make for some lively reading.