I’m in love. Can I just say that? I’m over the moon for Humboldt’s Gift. Will it last? Only time can tell. I have a book on my shelf entitled “Can Love Last?” by a perceptive, dead psychoanalyst. I have read it several times, remembering nothing.

Actually the last five days, their heavy servings of airports, subways, and hotels, have made of me a hungry, swift reader, a promiscuous lover of books. Books feel like rapids: I jump in them and am dangerously off. In Cold Blood went down my mental gullet in two disturbing days, with flashes of joy when the style zoomed. And now the late Saul Bellow, with whom I had dinner twice (I knew nothing but a name then)…

Bless the subway. When you are on the subway to/from Brookyn–a journey of 45 minutes or more from my house–you really have no choice but to read; it is a protected, hurtling interval; you cannot practice, clean, blog, or call people back. You are relieved of your contractual obligations, freed by an enclosing car.

But now, today, I have constricting choices; I am at home; the pile of mail beckons. Projects, projects. My beloved friends are calling, worried, where am I?, am I OK?, and I am reading. (Recovering, perhaps.)

Is reading so irresponsible? Today I saw an intriguing book in the Juilliard bookstore: Joseph Polisi’s The Artist as Citizen. It tugged at me; I grabbed it, felt its dimensions, then dropped it like a hot potato. I sensed and dreaded a whole new raft of obligations, a whole new role: how I could transform myself into an upstanding whatever. A pianist with a conscience. Now, The Citizen as Artist: THAT’S a book I want to read! Polisi’s book would be responsible reading, for me; which is precisely why I don’t want to read it.

My bibliophilia saved me–if nothing else–from television, in Louisville. I got no further than the introductory channel, the hotel’s default media launching point… On this channel, a woman was selling Pay-Per-View movies. But she wasn’t selling them in a sexy way; she was EXPLAINING them. What is worse than crap? The explanation of crap. Standing in a faux living room, she explained that “the makers of ‘Batman Begins’ were faced with a unique problem.” Oh yes, what was that? How to spend their money? No, she went on: “How to bring freshness to a story that has seen so many incarnations.” Such a unique problem indeed (almost every piece of literature ever written). Actually what she really said was much more inane than that, my brain simply won’t recall it… “we explore the young Batman,” who in turn “explores the boundaries of good and evil,” “tries to understand himself as a superhero,” and–of course–“comes of age.”

One feels like an idiot pointing out its idiocies. I turned the TV off, for days, favoring unintroduced books. What bothered me most was her insistence on a tone, the way she tried in her earnest way to elevate her subject-matter, to take whatever piece of drivel and toss explanatory sauce on it and serve it up like a real meal. Today’s Special. Just like TNT replays a movie, and calls it a “New Classic.” Ah, oxymoron! No: you have to earn it, you can’t market it into remembrance.

I have verged into rant, doubtless at the subconscious behest of my new love Bellow. As a classical musician surrounded by a non-classical world, I sometimes get touchy, even misanthropic. (Is there a word like “misanthropic,” applicable to a prevailing cultural milieu?) I love my books; I want to murder my TV. Today, though in love, I am grumpy and recovering and staring at my pile of mail (ever more daunting) and having to deal with real life, and therefore retreating into safe, magical books (like musical scores without notes). The outside world–for instance, people with double-wide strollers in Starbucks–unpleasant intrusion. I think this passage from Humboldt’s Gift is applicable, and incredible:

For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar sytem. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, “If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.” So this, I was meditating, is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult.

Wow, that’s harsher than I remember from the first read-through. Especially, the end. Rest assured I am not feeling that harshly myself today… except towards my pile of mail. After all, I’m in love.

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  1. Sarah Louise
    Posted October 5, 2005 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m jealous of your subway rides–I used to ride the bus to work and read–now I drive and sometimes listen to audio books. It is true that public transportation really offers no other remedy but books. I’ve been enjoying your blog.

  2. Bryant Manning
    Posted October 6, 2005 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    “…the whisper of wind voices in the wind bent wheat.”

    i’m thoroughly jealous of capote’s skills on that last page.

  3. Amy
    Posted October 6, 2005 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Stephen Mitchell…compromise and understanding passion, like roping a cheetah perhaps. Is this the book that bored housewives read between husbands?

    I recommend:
    Practical Gods, by Carl Dennis
    Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins
    Sailing Around the Room, by Billy Collins
    I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
    The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
    From the Top of the Stairs, by Gretchen Finletter
    The Cantos, Ezra Pound

    Jeremy, I hope you are well.

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