Dear reader, I don’t know about you, but when I go into someone’s house I take the first civil opportunity to go through the bookshelf, if it’s in a public area. It seems as if what is there is some clue to the personality of the books’ owner(s), and more: what is there can be a plank for a bridge between us. “Oh, I see you have Being and Nothingness.” “Yes, but I haven’t had time to read it.” “And The Open Society and its Enemies.”
Is this unfair? Probably. But it’s true too, or has its measure of truth. I don’t own a television, and watch in others people’s houses reluctantly, not because television doesn’t have a place in our lives – it does – but because life really is too short for me to get through all the more satisfying intellectual (and by this I include emotional) adventures on offer, in particular but not only through books. I have spent getting on to thirty years now “exploring” Shakespeare, and I’m not done yet! I scarcely know many exciting writers, or know them less well than I would like – Donne, for example. And the thrill of reading Euripides, my previous post, knowing that this was a man who lived around 2500 years ago, whose mind is reaching across all that time, as an artist, an intellect, a philosopher, a human being…how can television stand up to that? It’s an individual relationship, me and Euripides, Shakespeare and I, and the others. They speak to me – and I speak back.
So when I see that someone has dropped out of this adventure – and my experience is that this usually happens on leaving formal education – it doesn’t mean I don’t like them, but that I am a bit sad for them; I think they’re missing out, not becoming the people they could become.
Is that arrogant? Maybe it is, but I hope it’s not. Many of my best friends don’t read at all and I don’t judge them for it. It just seems to me to be sad for them, that they have never discovered the joys of reading. We still have a great time together on the planes of existence that matter to us, to our relationship.
Still, when I meet someone whose shelves are groaning from the weight, overflowing with a broad range of books with some intellectual grunt, I feel of frisson of pleasure, of anticipation: I think I have found a friend, and usually I have.
In the broader sense, a person’s bookshelves do reveal something about them: their tastes somehow show something about who they are, just as their taste in music does: Mozart and Beethoven v Wagner for example. My book collection shows my ambitions, my past and my development, my pretensions and my failures in a very sophisticated way I think. Yes, there is something “under the bed” too, and there are gaps that are as revealing as what is there.
This series, these “blogs”, does something similar. As I’ve gone along, I’ve begun to see how writing about my influences comprises a kind of intellectual autobiography: my mind’s life’s journey. I hope it’s interesting in its own right, not because it’s about my mind’s predilections. After all, if I get fascinated by someone or something, I will be Kantian enough to believe it to be interesting to anybody, at least potentially.
The other side of that is being open to new interests, new tastes, new experiences, and reading as a practice ought to teach this, to each of us. If reading focuses the mind, it also opens it. So say I.
My next stop, I think, is Plato, but thought I might have a wee ramble through wider paddocks first. And you know that my other pastime – butterfly soothing – must get its due.
A screed. It is worth at least a dozen stars, mostly blue and yellow ones, but choose others if you wish.