Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for April 6th, 2012

One page at a time

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If there were world enough, and time, I’d read all the books that I buy, but as we’ve already demonstrated, that isn’t going to happen. At this point in my life, when I’ve been accumulating books for years, whenever I hesitate over buying another one, it isn’t so much about the money—although it sometimes is—as it is about time and space. I seem condemned, or blessed, to spend my life with overflowing bookshelves and books on the floor, and I’m fine with that (although my wife seems less than thrilled by the prospect). That said, when I decide not to buy a book these days, I’m often thinking about the cubic inches it will occupy, not its effect on my wallet. And same is true, even more so, of time. As has been pointed out more than once, if you’re thirty years old and can get through, say, two books a week, that’s just five thousand books until you die, not nearly enough time for everything worth reading. So whenever I’m weighing a new purchase, part of me has to ask of the book in my hand: “Are you one of the five thousand?”

Yet that’s manifestly unfair to most books, which aren’t necessarily meant to be read from cover to cover, but to be owned, consulted, browsed through, and contemplated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has spoken approvingly of Umberto Eco’s idea of the anti-library, which states that unread books are far more valuable than the ones you’ve read—in which case my own library is priceless. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there,” Taleb writes, in his slightly smug style. And I agree. But the real problem isn’t reading the books: it’s about knowing, in general, what I’m missing. With the books I tend to buy, which are old, miscellaneous, and rarely searchable online, it isn’t enough just to glance at the back cover, or even the index. A quick look won’t tell you what you’ll find in, say, The Road to Xanadu or The White Goddess or any of the other great lucky bags of literature, in which a random page might contain a fact that can change a life. So what do you do?

If you’re me, you engage in a slightly more leisurely version of what Calvin does here: you sit down and flip through the entire book, not really reading, but at least physically looking at every page. I’m far from joking. This is browsing taken to its most literal, left-brained extreme, but it works so well that I try to do it with every book I buy these days, often at night, when my wife and I are reading together on the living room sofa. To take examples from the books I bought this month: it was while going page by page through Notes on a Cowardly Lion, slowing down to read the sections on Bert Lahr’s performances in The Wizard of Oz and Waiting for Godot—which deserve blog posts of their own—that I discovered the wonderful passage on the vaudevillian Billy K. Wells that appeared here on Sunday. And while doing the same for The Ants, I learned about the curious phenomenon of the ant mill, which I promptly appropriated for use in a section of my current novel.

And sometimes you’ll find something even more significant. If there’s any book that was made for a good left-brained browse, it’s Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, a big, glossy, gorgeous volume, too large to really read comfortably, dense with images and text, that I picked up for a song at last year’s Newberry Library Book Fair. While browsing through it page by page, alighting on a sentence here and there, I found Schama’s memorable account of the bizarre incident when, on June 15, 1985, a man attacked Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, throwing sulfuric acid at the painting and slashing it with a knife. I made a note of it and moved on. Even at the time, though, I sensed it would be useful, and in the end, a highly modified version of this incident ended up serving as the prologue of The Scythian. If it weren’t for that random discovery, the prologue—and the whole novel—would have been utterly different. It was serendipity, yes, but approached in the nerdiest, most methodical way imaginable. Which basically is what my life is all about.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

Quote of the Day

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We construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is still a good thing.

Paul Klee

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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