February 20, 2006

To Read Is To Dream Is To Live

When I read a book that teaches me something about life – or about the mind and soul, which is what I usually mean by “life” – I underline in black ink the passages that reach me most deeply or that seem best-written. Then, when I return to the book for renewed inspiration, I can hop from one underlined passage to the next and cross the river of the writer’s thought.

Sometimes, though, when I pick up the book again after a long time, I reread the underlined passages and they mean nothing; why did I think them worth marking? What could I have been thinking of? For instance in the book Ka, by Roberto Calasso, a beautifully written poststructuralist study (yes, there are such things) of Hindu myth, which makes brilliant connections between ancient rites and legends and the categories of contemporary European thought.

“Not only is the world founded on the residue but the world is the first of all residues, broken off from something immensely more vast that in its overabundance could not bear to remain whole.”

“The tragic is the unique and irreversible act…. Whatever is multiplied is also extenuated.”

I can tease out the intended meaning, but I can’t remember why it stirred me; I can’t get the feeling back. Why do I spend my evenings poring over small print and adding wavery marks on the pages when all these thoughts amount to is a cloud hovering beneath a ceiling? The book has become an empty envelope, marked with the return address of someone I cared about long ago.

I sometimes feel that way about even my dearest father-authors: I’ll go to reread Chekhov or Hemingway and be taken up short in amazement: What is the point of all this? Why does it matter, these people entering rooms and uttering commonplaces and falling in and out of love? It’s like I’m seeing them with the lights turned off.

And then, returning a second time, the lights are back on, and Chekhov is so wise and tenderly comic, and Hindu myth teaches us about what kind of cosmos we’re in…

It’s like falling in love with someone and then deciding you don’t love them anymore and then, after it’s over, remembering that you loved them. Or taking a job and throwing yourself into it excitedly for a few months and then getting bored and jumping to another company and then regretting that you didn’t stay in the first one.

The back-and-forth is a symptom of dreaming. I dreamed the book’s profundity and beauty and then I dreamed its dullness: they switch back and forth like a dream face that turns into a spider. Books and dreams and wakefulness, alternations that conceal the identical.

If we take away the reading time and the music-listening time and the screen-watching time and the fantasizing time and the time of trivial conversation and the time of untruths and the time of vain planning and the time of aimless here-and-there, what’s left? A clear interval, a break in the forest, through which shines the light of… another dream.

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