That books are maps

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

This isn’t your place is perhaps a better way to translate Pan tu nie stal than the literal You weren’t standing here, I suppose. The title — a rude interruption aimed at correcting a stranger — refers to the several reviews in this collection of essays.  Some are funnily cruel — suggesting via the title that they are rudely inappropriate and uninvited blunts the edge.

The book is intensely funny in places — mainly on account of the language games — the OuLiPo transformations of the first sentence of Proust; the dragon terminology; the brilliant translation of the cheese monger section from a Zola novel.  This can only be done in Polish.  No language affords this kind of pleasure.  The discussion of Lem’s Robot Fairytales proves the point.

The book reviews are very good.

The literary plays — such as when author tries to identify the particular Warsaw Opera singer who may have been the lady mentioned in some Sherlock Holmes story; or proposes that Appolinaire might have been the son of a character from a Prus novel delight me less — they are not funny enough not to feel like a waste of time.  The two essays about the authors’ intense love of books remind me of some people I have met who appear to live the same way.

I do like books myself, but not nearly as much.  Other things have mattered in my life as much, perhaps more:  travel; dance-drama; classical live-music; paintings; textiles.  Though at times I have read as much as 1200 pages a week, books have been more a source of knowledge and an aid to thinking than a matter of unalloyed pleasure.  I do have a reading habit, but it isn’t especially strong:  I can go a week without reading if I am doing something else.

A list of my favorite books, if I had to draw up one, would be headed by Dawkins, Pinker, Popper, Russell, Nietzsche, Castaneda; a certain accounting textbook; a certain book on Jesuits in China; a history of the Sung Dynasty; some books on art and art history, especially those dedicated to technique; three books on textiles; de Zoete on dance in Bali.  In short, facts, rather than fiction.  With a touch of how-to.

Books as guides to the world and one’s life within it.  I am not likely to spend much time wondering how Pym relates to Poe; or how fiction interacts with reality.  To me, the relationship of books to reality is straightforward:  books are maps.



How difficult it becomes with age to find a good book to read

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

How difficult it becomes with age to find a good book to read:  one has become more demanding, both because one has seen a lot and is no longer as easily impressed; but also because one’s time is shorter — the days go by faster, there are fewer of them left — so that one has grown less forgiving of those who would waste it.

This year I have read only five or six new books to the end, most of those not because they were especially good but because they were informative, the rest lie about the house, splayed open upside down, like dead sea-gulls shot down from the sky.  It is perhaps on this account that I read less in general:  drawing up this year’s accounts I find no more than 30 titles this year, so far, against the usual three hundred a year as recently as 2005.  Books, I suppose, go the way of women:  one knows how it will go; and, worse, knows too that he doesn’t really care all that much for it.

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