Updated and revised (4/18, 11:29 a.m.)
Another version of “My Favorite Book.”
Not My Favorite Book
A favorite book? I don’t have one. To be sure, you might ask tomorrow and get a different response. I have favorite authors sometimes, but these too are always flowing in and out of my esteem. Often a work I would locate at the top cascades down to the bottom only to bubble up once more.
I am a great reader of Walden as at bottom I know its depths are still unrevealed. At one point Thoreau speaks of how the pond floods every few years and then recedes. How, when in recession, the land springs forth new shoots and growth, but all that is then covered again under water by the pond overflowing its banks. That is only one of the many metaphors for the book itself. It presents its main body, “Economy,” and then overflows those banks by a seemingly endless effluence of thinking in order to submerge the unchecked growth of abstract institutions of accumulation . All praise to the fecundity of texts that offer us repeated and new pleasures each time we open their covers regardless of our own changes of season and fortune
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What the poet finds is that a world in flux is received as collage: that the Word is collage: that the Logos can be translated “Conversation,” which is the ephemeral collage of voices in air. Think of it, what is our human difference as creatures? Language. In the beginning was the conversation; consequent to that, discrimination of sources. We pick and choose as to our moods. Emerson says this too, “our moods do not believe in each other.” Emily Dickinson was a great reader of Emerson and having also heard him speak and visit her home in Amherst (though she did not present herself) she knew of the man in the flesh of text and the music of voice. His great gifts spill into her own unbanked and well-posthumous works.
Eliot Weinberger, essayist and translator, introduced me to poet Susan Howe’s book on Emily Dickinson and from that book I drifted onto her literary shoal, The Birth-mark. In this book (perhaps I might call it a favorite) Howe dances around in Puritan conversion narratives, in marginalia from Melville, in captivity narratives such as that of Mary Rowlandson, in antinomian history and persecution. Howe, figuring herself a cormorant poised and gliding above the still surface of library shelves, dives deep in seeking the flesh of our written but vaulted past in order to feed an alternative present. “The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act. By choosing to install certain narratives somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry, I have enclosed them in an organization…” She has dug her own pond and bred storied souls to swim between its banks.
Yet it is proposed that a symbol is vital only in its movement; a brief moment on the sandbank fills our lungs in preparation for continued swimming. Emerson says it this way: “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes…” Our vitality is in fluidity of spirit and the movement of mind set against the calcification of custom and the bounding winds of trade. Still, the constant flux is unnerving and the quietly seeking mind at Walden is as easily the mind harpooning occupation aboard the Pequod. The ship set sail is not moved so much that the post cannot deliver it. “This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it–for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing?” We are foundered upon Melville’s lament more readily than we esteem Emerson’s endless changes of translatable motility, ideal as it may sound. Abandon ship! Queequeg’s coffin might dutifully serve Henry’s use as a canoe to navigate a calm and common Concord.
photo credit: Concord Free Public Library–which, seemingly in opposition to the spirit of HDT, requires permission to reprint in any form.
you surprised me with these two versions. Reading them both today I find I like “Not My Favorite Book.”
I like that you start with Walden this time.
It enters many of your essays and you reference Thoreau so well that it makes a natural point to start.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” – Catcher in the Rye
The truth behind this is that readers wish they could call up Holden Caulfield. I suppose I’d want to ask Franny out for a drink and show Lane Coutel the door.
It’s funny how much a novel is NOT like a person. But one might argue that essayists like Thoreau are very much “of a piece” with their writing.
There are some authors that leave you wanting more–whether in the form of their writing, or the thought process behind the writing, or more information (behind the scenes as it were) about the book or characters or simply more insight into their ideas in general. The more invested you are in the book the more you may wish you could “call up the author”–usually you just end up rereading the book and the book itself becomes a friend.
I find that when I am in sympathy with a book I feel a very really ache in the fact that I cannot really know them–more, that I can’t ask questions or, as Eric posts below, just live with them for a time and do the things they do (or did).
With books like Howe’s, they are such work to read that I am often simply exhausted by them and they are not books that are “embodied” howe but rather very clearly a mind gathering nesting scraps. In that kind of book I like to share my own discoveries for the nest.
I agree with your sentiment Doug–there is an “ache” for more. Answers to questions or as Eric mentions simply existing with them, which is a way of communing with their thoughts and ideas as well.
I don’t have the energy to be exhausted by a book anymore.
Well, texts can perform all kinds of functions for us. I think we simply created a commodity called a “book” and we learned to read them in the manner they are produced, as products to be consumed.
We really can grow into a new (old!) way of reading again. Perhaps this cannot save us from machines of totality but it might at least keep us human for a few more decades.
I also admire David Sedaris’ response in this weeks NYTBR:
NYTBR: If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?
DS: I’m horrible at meeting people I admire, but if I could go back in time, I’d love to collect kindling or iron a few shirts for Flannery O’Connor. After I’d finished, she’d offer to pay me, and I’d say, awe-struck, my voice high and quivering, that it was on me.
I rode to Walden Pond with a bestie, drank wine, dipped in and had to hang damp undergarments out the car window to dry in the summer night’s air as we giggled our way “home.” H.D.T. was laughing somewhere.
More probably scowling, poor fella, though he might have liked the show! What fun!