The year 2008 slipped by with devastating swiftness and already another year is well advanced. I look back again over the eventful months so quickly disappearing and realize how more and more important the simple pleasure of reading has become. The days are filled with work and drama, tragedies and joys, deaths and messages, the constant cut and thrust of life in the raw and at its burnished best. Amidst the occasional epiphanies and the more frequent confusion, reading I find is a real requirement of the soul. It fills my mind with the insights, the revelations, the inspirations of people different, stranger, wiser, greater than myself.

I cannot imagine everyday life without the prospect of reading. Contentment settles in one when I can look forward to a long stretch of time spent reading. I lie in a Berbice chair on the veranda of my home with the green trees in the garden old and beautiful to behold, and the whole world and history and the infinite variety of man’s imagining become available to me as I read.

*  There is simply not enough time to do everything, and as one gets older that becomes truer. Kenneth Koch’s poem teaches us the facts.

You Want a Social Life, With Friends

You want a social life, with friends,

A passionate love life and as well

To work hard every day. What’s true

Is of these three you may have two

And two can pay you dividends

But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends –

Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends –

To find the time to have love, work, and friends.

Michelangelo had feeling

For Vittoria and the Ceiling

But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets

Wrote all day but had no lockets

Bright with pictures of his Girl.

I know one who loves and parties

And has done so since his thirties

But writes hardly anything at all.

*  There are so many extraordinary people about whom we know absolutely nothing. I read an extended article about Sir Harold Bailey, Professor of Sanskirt at Cambridge, who died at the age of 96. A most remarkable man. He knew how to read 50 languages, many of them extinct. He was one of the world’s great scholars. His study was so crowded he often mislaid his typewriter beneath piles of books. What a wonderful life he must have led among his manuscripts and books! Languages are man’s greatest achievement. To add knowledge to mankind’s study of languages must be one of the most important things any man can do. Yet the most banal and stupid pop star is infinitely more ‘famous’ than this marvellous Sanskrit scholar.

*  I have been browsing in an anthology and find this entry by the English diplomat, Henry Edward Fox, in his journal for July 23, 1820, which sums up why one should studiously avoid getting mixed up in the selfish scrimmage of politics: “Every day I live I am more and more persuaded not to meddle in politics; they separate the best friends, they destroy all social intercourse. And why? Is it for power? Is it for popularity? How unenviable they are separately! How seldom you see them combined; and most politicians have neither.”

*  I love browsing in Godfrey Chin’s ‘Nostalgias.’ He unforgettably records the past we so easily forget. He remembers the lives of long-gone wonderful people who made life vivid and good. Even the most ordinary people should not be forgotten. All of us remember and should try to record the roles played in our lives by those who lived and died completely obscure but whom we loved. This thought I find in a brief note in the journal of Nicholas Brown on December 21, 1788: “Died at Alnwick, Mary Robertson, an old gingerbread dealer: children at school being great customers.” I spend a few minutes thinking about the utterly obscure “Mary Robertsons” in my life whom I still vividly recall though they died long ago and made no mark at all upon the world.

*  My sons have grown up so quickly, it frightens and saddens me. We try our best for them but soon enough they will be on their own. I read Yehuda Amichai’s lovely poem on the subject.

My Children Grew

My children grew and flourished around tears and laughter

like fruit, like houses, but the tears and the laughter

stayed inside the kernel, just as they were. Our Father, Our King!

That’s all for today on fathers and kings.

Go, children I begot: get yourselves into the next century,

when the tears and the laughter will continue, just as they were.

I remember giving them a stern warning:

“Never, never stick your hand out the window of a moving bus.”

Once we were on a bus and my little girl piped up, “Daddy, that guy

stuck his hand into the outside!”

That’s the way to live: to stick your hand into the infinite outside

of the world, turn the outside inside out,

the world into a room and God into a little soul

inside the infinite body.

*  As I write it does not appear, despite the marvellous hope we put in Barack Obama, that the New Year is likely to proceed with any promise of being particularly peaceful or fruitful. One would almost despair were it not for the fact that one will always be able to retreat into the blessed kingdom of reading. Ignorance is the essential raw material for the generation and perpetuation of prejudice and hatred. To some extent, large or small, ignorance lies within all of us, a blockage to an open mind and a generous heart. But reading can help us. As Kafka wrote in a famous phrase: a book can be “the axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”

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