Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading on the Road

I enjoyed Jay Parini's article "A Traveler's Library," which I came to thanks to AL Daily. Parini nicely captures the special effect of books that one reads while traveling, how they become associated with the place where one read them, as in this discussion of 1968:

"That same year, I spent Christmas with a friend's family in an icy, remote village in northern Spain. They were wonderful, but I missed my own family in Pennsylvania. Rather wisely, I had brought with me several books by John Updike, and I spent hour upon hour in my unheated bedroom, gloves on my hands, lost in Updike's early fiction, which evoked the sights and sounds of my home state, with its mild landscape, its gently rolling fields, and the small towns where high-school basketball games mattered desperately. I practically memorized the stories in Pigeon Feathers, still one of my favorite volumes of fiction because of its acute particularity, especially in the title story, which features an adolescent boy in the passion of self-discovery. I read and reread Of the Farm, a splendidly sensuous novella. I even liked The Centaur, which now strikes me as rather forced and dull. Whenever I see those books on my shelf, I can smell the cooking of that Spanish kitchen, where I also often sat at a plain wooden table while my friend's mother fried garlic and fish over a gas stove."

The push and pull of emotion in this paragraph is striking: Parini read Updike in Spain in order to remember Pennsylvania, but now when he thinks of those books he remembers not Pennsylvania, but Spain. The vividness of the books' contents have been replaced by the vividness of the place where he read them. Parini later mentions a similar experience of reading War and Peace in Italy: "Forever I will associate that story with that place, and that time in my life."

I also enjoyed his discussion of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, which he read while traveling in Eastern Europe. Like Parini, I have always ben thrilled by the story of Auerbach writing Mimesis "under trying wartime circumstances, without the benefit of a library; he had nothing but his own well-stocked mind for recourse." It almost seems as if every literary scholar should set himself or herself the challenge of writing just an essay (and not a whole book, as Auerbach did) without anything but his or her own mind as the source of the material. That would be a serious test of one's intellectual and scholarly skills! Could one produce (in Parini's words) "something as densely packed, informative, and meditative" as Mimesis?

I, too, associate certain books with travel, mostly with airplanes. But once I was reading an Ishiguro novel (either Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World) on one end of my Dad's couch while Andrea was reading A Pale View of Hills (also Ishiguro) at the other end. Suddenly, near the end of the book, she gasped, astonished. My Dad was also in the room, and as he had read the book, he immediately knew why she had gasped. A few days later, I was reading the same book on the plane back to Europe, and suddenly, near the end of the book, I gasped, astonished. I was on the same page that Andrea had been on when she gasped. In fact, it was the same exact word that made me gasp.

Which word was it? Read the book. :-)

(By the way, here's a tasty poem by Jay Parini, too: "Aristotle in the Middle Ages.")

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