Jul 17, 2005

The indispensable book

Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable, and two of them are always with me, wherever I am. They are here, by my side: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~

When I travel, I always bring two books with me to read on the plane, train, airport, bus, whatever. Both are books I've read countless times now. I tend to pick them up and randomly choose a page to start reading from. I don't read them for the plot anymore, I can recite that already. There's something comforting about a familiar book when you're in unfamiliar surroundings. Plus, if we're talking air travel, I tend to be a nervous flyer and, as anyone who has ever suffered any sort of anxiety at all knows, when you're scared your intellectual brain turns off and your lizard brain kicks in. All the more reason to stick to something you know.

For me, the two books are: Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Bruce Chatwin's The Song Lines.

Orlando I read for the language. For the sheer joy of it.

It was now November. After November, comes December. Then January, February, March, and April. After April comes May. June, July, August follow. Next is September. Then October, and so, behold, here we are back at November again, with a whole year accomplished.

This method of writing biography, though it has its merits, is a little bare, perhaps, and the reader, if we go on with it, may complain that he could recite the calendar for himself and so save his pocket whatever sum the Hogarth Press may think it proper to charge for this book. But what can the biographer do when his subject has put him in the predicament into which Orlando has now put us? Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are the poles asunder. Therefore--since sitting in a chair and thinking is precisely what Orlando is doing now--there is nothing for it but to recite the calendar, tell one's beads, blow one's nose, stir the fire, look out of the window, until she has done. Orlando sat so still that you could have heard a pin drop. Would, indeed, that a pin had dropped! That would have been life of a kind. Or if a butterfly had fluttered through the window and settled on her chair, one could write about that. Or suppose she had got up and killed a wasp. Then, at once, we could work out with our pens and write. For there would be bloodshed, if only the blood of a wasp. Where there is blood there is life. And if killing a wasp is the merest trifle compared with killing a man, still it is a fitter subject for novelist or biographer than this mere wool-gathering; this thinking; this sitting in a chair day in, day out, with a cigarette and a sheet of paper and a pen and an inkpot. If only subjects, we might complain (for our patience is wearing thin), had more consideration for their biographers! What is more irritating than to see one's subject, on whom one has lavished so much time and trouble, slipping out of one's grasp altogether and indulging--witness her sighs and gasps, her flushing, her palings, her eyes now bright as lamps, now haggard as dawns--what is more humiliating than to see all this dumb show of emotion and excitement gone through before our eyes when we know that what causes it--thought and imagination--are of no importance whatsoever?

The Song Lines I read for the validation it gives to the impulse to travel:

"Why is man the most restless, dissatisfied of animals? Why do wandering people conceive the world as perfect whereas sedentary ones always try to change it? Why have the great teachers - Christ or the Buddha - recommended the Road as the way to salvation? De we agree with Pascal that all man's troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room?"
“as a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones. There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveler’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and the stragglers fall by the wayside. The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The ‘dictators’ of the animal kingdom are those who live in the ambience of plenty. The anarchists, as always, are the ‘gentlemen of the road’.

Do you have a favorite book or two that you return to at particular periods of your life? What are they?

No comments: