“I decided that what I wanted most of all was. . . . to feel at home in the world, which meant to know something of the best that has been thought, believed, and created by the great minds of the past and present.”
Michael Dirda, Book by Book
I’ve discovered, over the course of time, that I read in what might seem a haphazard manner. But there is an inner filament that illumines the way I read, a hidden gyroscope I’ve learned to trust. I pick up a book on any subject that piques my curiosity, read the front, read the back, read the introduction and the first page, and begin to settle into the rhythm of the sentences. Before two or three days have passed I know I’ll come across a parallel work or a book that complements what I’m reading. It happens so often that I’m not surprised anymore, although I’m always grateful.
Another part of how I read is that I acquire books to grow into. For example, years ago I bought A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral, a spirited yet wistful recounting of the loss of faith among Victorian poets, critics, novelists, and philosophers. I bought it on the strength of Wilson’s biographies of Jesus and C. S. Lewis, and on his reputation as a wry observer of humanity’s spiritual condition. I found I wasn’t ready for it at the time, but I set it aside in the assurance that one day I would be. During one Christmas holiday I read it straight through, discovering therein an inside dialogue with a string of Victorian writers I’d read only in fits and starts. Then I came across a new collection of George Orwell’s essays entitled All Art is Propaganda with the first one being “Charles Dickens.” Wanting to know more I signed up for a “Victorian to Twentieth Century Literature” class at the university where I worked and was soon immersed in Dickens’ Hard Times, the poetry of Amy Levy and Christina Rossetti, the commentary of Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Carlyle, and the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Virginia Woolf.
I’ve had Goethe’s Faust in David Luke’s vivid and earthy translation on my shelves for almost 10 years. Every now and then I’d troll its waters but without dropping anchor. Then one evening I picked up Part One and dove deep. Coming up a day later, ready for Part Two, I was not surprised to find in the mail the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on the topic of Arts and Letters. Inside was a timeline of the development of the Faust epic, from an account of the life of Theophilus of Adana (c. 538), an Orthodox cleric who sold his soul to the devil, through Christopher Marlowe’s play (1604), Lessing’s scenes from an unpublished play on Faust (1759), Goethe’s masterpiece (1808, 1832), Berlioz’ opera (1846), Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name (1947), and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s film, Dr. Faustus (1967).
Those of a crabbed and literal mind might say that I consciously went searching for links. I’ve thought of it rather as serendipity, a lucky coincidence. But lately I’ve come to regard it as synchronicity, a meaningful coincidence of elements resulting in a new consciousness.
Reading Thoreau’s Walden for the first time in years grafted me into previous readings on the craft of writing, from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction to Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and thence to Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, a kind of sociocultural conversation on the ancient ritual of gift-giving and how the creativity of artists and writers continues the forward motion of gifting against the commercialization of art.
Where I end up after one of these treks is a long way from where I begin but it’s a journey with a narrative thread that can be understood if not explained. To the pleasure of reading widely is added the satisfaction of synthesis, the weaving together of contrasting skeins of thought into a harmonious pattern.
Do we conform everything we see into a matrix of convergences? I wonder about this as I scan the horizon of my literary landscape. Do we suffer the fate of the old saying, “If you think like a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” I prefer to think that a loose thread from a book we’re immersed in weaves itself into the fabric of another book. Part of the pleasure is the sudden awareness that this connects to that and that leads up to this. Perhaps attention becomes heightened, consciousness not narrowed but thrown wide open, a path through a dark wood suddenly giving way to a golden and towering sky.
“We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences,” says Michael Dirda. “They are instruments of self-exploration.”