Last month, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. We all hide that list of things we haven't gotten to; books everyone's read we haven't, cities yet to be seen, deeds to be done, movies. Etc
Classics. Rows of them. Upon rows. Stacks. Barns filled to the swallow scoured rafters.
Some years ago, I helped an old teacher take down his library. A terrible thing to even say, he had to cull his books. We had boxes of them in the hallway, heading down the stairs, cases he was going to give away. He said, "Well I know I'm never going to get to …."
Fill in the blank. The title. The name. The place.
It took me awhile to realize he was talking about dying. His backlog was longer than his lifeline. I'd never heard someone say it out loud. Or give it a page count.
I still think I'm going to read all the books on my shelves. I still think I'm going to get to Nepal to hike up thru the foothills to the tea plantations. To Vietnam to see where the American Dream got dropped out of the sky. Get back to Russia and compare it now to what my teenage mind made of that mythic land. And Algeria to see the Atlas Mountains. And Israel. And Greece. And Northern Japan and Newfoundland and Wales, and, and, and.. and of course someday I won't. I'll miss one of those…won't do one of the other deeds chartered in the itinerary of my mind, the story of the progress already half-written.
And that's okay.
No. It's not okay. It's awful. But that's what makes life precious. As the slave tells the roman general entering the victorious city….."All glory is fleeting." All glory, all thrills, all the youth you had, all the time, ( I sound like Roger Waters), all the chances, all the songs, the poetry, the music, the stories…you had your chance to let them possess you, to have them make you their host and then they passed on. And you pass away.
So, I didn't get to Jane Austen until I was almost 50. She's been around two centuries. She'll keep. No worries. It's all good. (Two sentences hopefully no one will say two centuries from now.) For her.
But ..what if…."If I read it 20 years ago…..if I'd picked it up when I was 14…..would I be someone else?"
Sounds a little dramatic but honestly, like the love you're shown when you were two years old or four, you don't remember it much, but it's kept you from killing someone or blithely leaving a hit and run. It keeps you from revenge porning your old flame or leaving anonymous, seething postings on somebody's website. It makes you hold the elevator door for the couple that wouldn't even see you if you just let it close. Love stops you. And love gets in there by being told. It's the oldest story there is. Your parents and your family tell you parables to keep you from becoming a sociopath and right at the same time, you learn to read. And those books you first read, that read you into being when you're trudging through the rich black bog of adolescence, they fucking mark you.
So when I pick up Pride and Prejudice now or a modern classic from 1965, or say an Updike story I skipped, that was published when I was 8, a hardback that's been sitting on the shelves in the house of every girlfriend I've had since the Reagan years, every party I went to, every holiday excursion to somebody's place lent by the friend of a friend, the rental home on an Island or some coastal cottage with the family's library left behind, or in the pile of novels backstage of this or that production….this book's been there, within arm's reach for most of my life but only now, now I pick it up. Would I had read it at 14. Would I have patterned my life differently?
I miss it. I miss the years we didn't have together. 3 decades have gone by in which I could have heard and known Miss Elizabeth's sharp voice. Had her determination and pride as a model. Held an image of her in my mind, of her home in a country I wouldn't see till I was almost 30. Those phantom portraits the desirous brain makes out of a story that even film can't entirely erase.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird last year for the first time. I wish I'd known those children when they were younger…..when I was a child…when I could have felt more closely the fear of that run they make across the final chapter's field. Had in my not yet 15 year old mind the sensations of a Southern summer's night walking with a father I admired. Instead at 45, fatherless both literally and in truth, I read the story of a young girl and imagine myself not too far from Atticus' age, wondering what did he think of his punchy daughter?
It was interesting to be kinned with him but I wish I'd graduated into it. I wish I'd moved thru the cycle; the virgin read when you're a boy and sense on your skin what Scout sees and hears. The odd run thru in college during a summer break when your friends make fun of you for reading such a "classic" and you wonder should I be liking this old saw as much as I do, this "kids' story"? Then reading passages again with the children of your friends who married young. Listening to the unnerving duplicates of your binge year buddies or of your sophomore lover sound out the familiar paragraphs, and thinking you're about to provide "wisdom" when suddenly your vision of the novel changes in their voices. And then you're middle aged and you think Christ how can I read a book four times and still be floored by it? And it floors you. And there are sentences you can't believe you ever read before.
And if so….why do we keep reading other books? Don't we owe it to the ones that knocked us on our 15 year old asses, don't we owe them more time, more of our life as fuel for their passions? Because they do, don't they…need us? We're the gasoline. We throw ourselves on the printed word, we breath onto the type, into it and boom, they live again….Liza, and Boo and Nic and Billy Parham and Vronsky and the Judds. Poured into the pages we give them life. Literally. And after we're gone, someone else will do the same. Tipping the heart's attentions into a story that will outlive its beating.
We feed them and for awhile they feed us. We both occupy and are colonized by books. I can't imagine ever completely freeing myself from their benevolent tyranny. I've seen old men and women living without books or music even, and frankly if I ever got to that stage- if I could no longer feel enriched, quickened by their presence in my life- I hope I'd have the self-respect to end it. If life became waking, feeding, watching and counting, I do hope I'd snuff it out.
I think we all live in the prison of ourselves. The limitations of the self we construct. And some of us are worse jailers than others. We strip and burn that self down as the decades go by. The lucky few get refined, they distill it, I suppose. The rest get left with what they pretended wasn't there all along. It's like what you read about in gulag stories, or war time memoirs…..they had nothing left but what was in their heads. And the people who had poems memorized, had chapters down, or verses from the bible, who could sing songs by heart, or recall whole plays in miniature, those people were treasured. They still lived with hope. They were hope. It's voice lived in them.
When I'm down to a grey creaking nothing in a 'home' or curled by a fire in the resentful living room of my grandkids, I hope to God I have the sense not to have left my last days to the whims of that season's tv or to some jingle I can't get out of my head. Or how much I was able to save from my IRA. I hope I can still call up Henry's prayer for his troops, or Richard's epiphany in jail, or the first paragraph in The Crossing, or anything by Yeats or Auden or Wilde. Please. Let me remember.