Sunday, April 25, 2010

Busy Old Fool

I once overheard an old friend, not without affection, describe my character to a third party as being comprised of "equal parts indignation and enthusiasm." I've always treasured that characterization, and thought it just, so far as it goes, which has often as not proved to be further than it should. When I was younger, like all young men, I was quick to both, and again like young people generally, I tended to overstate. Nothing I resented could I find other than outrageous, nothing I disliked but I hated it, and nothing and no one I liked but I loved. Books, friends, lovers and enemies all had from me something of the same intensity, received something like the same consideration, and suffered the effect of what another friend of that period described as my "dive and rip" method of getting acquainted. I could not at that period get to know someone but that I wanted and felt I needed to know everything about them: what they thought, what they read, who and what they loved and why. Even with a good new book, I could not read it but then had to read everything about the subject, everything I could find by and about the author, everything and anything that might sustain my interest and extend it to the next book and the next. In just this way I exhausted not just my friends, and a few teachers, but the pawky selection to be had in the little libraries to which I had access at the time. On subjects as diverse as OZ, the American Civil War, Edgar Allen Poe, the mafia, fascism, Daumier's caricatures, Emma Goldman and UFOs, I remember reading my way in turn through every book, encyclopedia entry and article there was to be had in my home town. When I came to serious literature, I attacked fiction in just this same way, convinced that if I meant to appreciate anything, I had to read everything and know whatever there was to know about everything I read. I still think that not a bad way for a young man to read. If history fueled my sense of injustice, and biography gave me heroes, if reading The King James Bible taught me less religion and more about verse than I realized at the time, if reading Twain, curiously enough, made me better prepared when I came to read James to appreciate his humor, it all proved to be a better preparation than much of the little formal education I received for everything that's come after. To a surprising extent, I still read, and live by the light that was kindled in me then by the books I happened on more often than I was handed. I can't quite imagine, looking back, why or how I read what I did, other than to marvel that the day must have had more hours in it when I was a boy than it does now, and I can't help but regret that there were not more adults along the way who might have better directed my interests and guided my reading, to say nothing of my affections and my time, into more productive paths, but nothing I now think did I really waste, and for such help as I had I am grateful.

A commonplace, first in my family and later among my friends, is that I was always old. At least until my beard turned white, it was among the most frequent, and weirdly flattering things said of me that I had always been "at least middle-aged." Now that I am, I know of course that that wasn't true at all. Middle-age, as I'm only now learning, is that stage in life when one comes to recognize one's limitations as irreversible, yet, presumably before old age, at least for those healthy enough to see it through gracefully, has taught the full wisdom of accepting what one doesn't know and what might never be. Indignation, of a rather mild kind, still rises in me at such a suggestion, and enthusiasm, if less likely to ignite and harder to keep alight, still warms at least most of my evenings' reading.

What I do not have now, I see, is that impatience to know something, anything new, that made me read so widely if not well, and that allowed me when I was a boy to be bored without stopping. That is what I think I now miss most. Taking up, for example, a huge new novel on a war in which I never had much interest, I could only manage, even with the best intentions, and in part at least as a duty to the awards committee on which I've agreed to spend another year, perhaps one hundred pages before I flung the thing away. What was I doing, I found myself asking no one but myself tonight, reading this catalogue of criminal stupidity, jungle-rot and futility, when I might instead be reading something, anything else from my nightstand? I can't just this minute imagine that there is anything about this particular war, a war within my memory, that I would wish to know that I don't already, certainly not from the perspective of yet another American veteran. Now that's just an idiotic thing to admit, I know, but so, I suspect, must any middle-aged, civilian reader, born before the end of Napoleon's era, have felt, had they had no unfulfilled curiosity about the siege of Moscow, when confronted by yet another foot soldier's memoirs. No amount of precise, not to say fetishistic detail of uniform, weather, rations and the condition of a soldier's feet, no recreation of maneuvers, however exacting, and no discussion of the politics within the army, could save such a book for such a reader. Perhaps only a Leo Tolstoy, writing well after the death of nearly everyone involved, and to a purpose greater than accurate reportage, could make a masterpiece out of such familiar suffering and carnage. And if this novel's not a masterpiece, or even anything much that's new to me, why am I reading it?

This book, this new book is a novel of a war I already know, a war I remember, a war about which I've already read enough if not too much, or at least too much of this. If I was already reluctantly reading this novel, and already willing to concede that even I could see how good and earnest it author's intentions were, nevertheless tonight I was finally convinced, and forced to admit, that it is indeed not a novel likely to someday find a place next to Tolstoy, or even be ranked as being by the James Jones of the Vietnam Conflict, and so... to Hell with it. This may not then be a bad novel -- and there have certainly been enough people whose opinion I respect who have encouraged me to think it a good book and worth reading -- but nevertheless, I simply do not want to read another word of the damned thing tonight.

And that, my friends, is a middle-aged man's confession. I can work up neither the indignation nor the enthusiasm to read another word. Maybe there is something in this new book I don't know and need to, or at least some story I would be the better for having read. Maybe I'll pick it up off the floor tomorrow and decide to give it another hundred pages to convince me, and maybe I won't.

Tonight though, before bed, I'm going to be reading Donne's Songs and Sonnets, again. War be damned.

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