The sun beats down on the sand. Waves crash in and roll back out. After a week of surfing I’d realized there are limits to a 38 year old body, even one in reasonably good condition. My body was telling me I needed rest. I heeded it. Physically tired, but mentally alert I sat down under the thatched room of my favorite palapa, ordered ceviche with a Fanta and set about to read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Yes, I know that’s heavy reading for the beach, but I don’t do things by halves.
As the sun rose in the middle of a cloudless, desolate blue sky, climbing down through the minutes and hours of the tropics my mind joined with another in three dense, intellectual chapters of masterful literary criticism.
But first a digression.
Several weeks ago I went out on a date with a well-educated young woman. A stunning, tall brunette with dark, penetrating eyes, a nip of a nose and a warm smile. Being the avid reader I am the topic circled around reading and books, the internet and modern communications. Sadly, while the young woman in question was bright—and educated—she was far from literate. (I know that’s a smug judgment, but I’m the one dating, not you!) In the words of LA Times book editor she had bought into the ideal that “it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”
“The last book I read was on an airplane. Something I picked up in the airport. I can’t remember what it was,” she said.
This is a woman who probably makes $100,000 a year, but what poverty? I wanted to ask what she’d take to the grave, but that’s on the cruel side (and glum) for a first (and last) date. Of course, she does read. She talked about the blogs (mostly liberal and feminist) and websites, newspapers, magazines she read and the books she listened to.
“Listened to?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know, audiobooks,” she replied, looking at me as if I was from outer-space. I knew what she meant, but couldn’t divine the “why” of it. I don’t want to listen to a book. I want to inhabit it. I want the writer to take me off into her world. I want to have congress with his mind. Isn’t that why we read? Not to “be in the know” but to know, to feel, to become? Alas, if reading is a lost art—as Ulin says, I’ve made damn sure I at least know when to ask for directions. For without books I would be lost.
And so I sat on that beach and read, first about Bocaccio: Frate Alberto and his misadventures, presaging Casanova in Venice. Prose filled, in Auerbach’s words, “with malicious little thrusts at the preaching friars” of his day. Clearly little has changed, I think, as I consider the pecadilloes of American preachers and their bountiful harvest of bimbroglios.
Then came a chapter on Antoine de la Sale, writing with a verve and realism, movingly so about the loss of sons to mothers during war. One can read the New York Times any day of the week with its grim statistics of lives lost in Iraq or Afghanistan, some insurgency in Africa or civil war in Asia and never know of true loss: the kind of loss that carves out a hollow cavity in a mother’s soul. But pick up a book from the ‘canon’ and reality is right there, staring at me, defying me to disagree that little has changed over the last five hundred years.
And then comes Rabelais and Pantagruel. Auerbach’s chapter is a long, discursive essay on the giant and the comic adventure. Now here was something I could relate to: present company included. Barton and Reyes are no Pantagruel or Gargantua and I no Alcofrybas. But my time in Mexico was nothing if not comic. And, like Alcofrybas, I have in the last year discovered, if not a new world, at the very least a new self. Whence I was once far too serious I am now, in Auerbach’s formulation, “more protean, more inclined to slip into someone else’s shoes.” In a very real sense I attained a level of empathy I never knew I was capable of. I’d much rather live this way, mocking myself—and the world with me than be stuck in “thick headedness [un]able to adjust” full of “one track arrogance which blinds a man to the complexity of the real situation.” Or, to reformulate Auerbach’s comment on Montaigne to my own purpose (which Montaigne would appreciate): I may often contradict myself, but I never contradict the truth.
The wind crackled up the beach. A coconut thumped into the sand. I sat with what I had just learned, eager to find a book store and read more, the original—with the vain hope that one day I would read something other than Caesar, Cicero and Virgil in the original.
This is why I read. This is why I sit down and make quiet hours for myself. A blog may provide a momentary distraction or a pungent sound-bite. But our lives, such as they are, are best mirrored in those works which will never die. It is the ideas which inhabit them, truly hoary but verities none the less, that I turn for solace and understanding. These ideas make the human condition bearable. And to them I always return.