Reading and Travelling: A poor soldier of culture


I love reading–always have, always will. I love my family, my friends too–always have always will. In Arizona all our family and friends from back home are back home. Too far to see. So we have lots of time on our hands. Much of that time is spent reading.

At home I have lots of books. In the fourteenth century the largest library in Europe, the Sorbonne, had about 1700 books, about the same size as my library. I take pride in that. Sadly I can’t take those with me, but I sure can take some.

Traveling and reading is not always easy. Even ebooks are not without their challenges. Lewis Lapham the former editor of Harpers Magazine once wrote, “it pleases me to learn that Abdul Kassem Ismael, grand vizier of Persia in the tenth century A.D., never travelled without his library of 117, 000 volumes, carried by a caravan of 400 camels trained to walk in alphabetical order. Well I did not bring that many books, for I did not have a caravan of camels. But I have brought some outstanding books here to Arizona.

Besides the books though we have been blessed by time. One without the other is sterile. Because we have so much time it is possible to engage in deep reading. Harold Bloom, following Shelley, said that deep reading is giving up easier pleasures for more difficult pleasures. The only reading that matters is close and deep re-reading. Democracy can only survive if we learn to think well and powerfully. He also likes the quote from Wallace Stevens: “the reader becomes the book, summer was like the conscious being of the book.” Sometimes I get that feeling. Especially in Arizona where I have more time to read.

That does not mean all the books we read are deep books. Far from it. I am what Saul Bellow called “a poor soldier of culture.” Pulp fiction can be good too. Good pulp that is. For example, I love James Lee Burke. He writes great pulp. I have already one of his books on this trip.

Saul Bellow one of the best American novelists of the 20th century knew the value of good books. He also realized that modern readers had many distractions. As he said, “Well there is a violent uproar, but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher, activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to cut through the whirling mind of a modern reader, but it is still possible to reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone , we novelists may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too.”

I have definitely experienced complications this trip. Mainly brought on by braying hounds of American politics. I needed to get back to essentials, and reading has allowed me to do exactly that.

So reading here in Arizona has been a great pleasure perhaps more than at home because here, away from the hurly burly, it is easier to find what Bellow called that “quiet zone” where reader and writer meet.

The rewards of reading area also deep. I want it to be like Saul Bellow said in It All Adds Up, “Literature in my early days was still something you lived by; you absorbed it, you took it into your system. Not as a connoisseur, aesthete. Lover of literature. No it was something on which you formed your life, which you ingested, so that it became part of your substance, your path to liberation and full freedom.”[3]

Jonathan Franzen is another writer who appreciates reading. He compared it to watching television, “in reading, unlike watching TV one reflects and one gains much…”instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.” [4] Franzen acknowledges that this is elitist. “The elitism of modern literature is, undeniably, a peculiar one– an aristocracy of alienation, a fraternity of the doubting and wondering… The first lesson reading teaches us how to be alone.” [5] That’s why I always say, the reader will never be bored, provided he has a book or magazine near at hand. Then life is always good. I try to teach that to my grandchildren. I hope they learn it.

I also cherish the fact that in modern life, with the decline of reading, the reader is also the rebel. Franzen quoted Don DeLillo from a Paris Review article in 1993 who pointed out that everything in modern culture argues against the novel and that this required a writer who was opposed to power to be a rebel, i.e. one who is opposed to assimilation. Sort of like Karl Kraus the Austrian satirist who said after World War I that there was the “hopeless contrary” of the nexus of technology, media, and capital. The reader and the writer as rebel!

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