Monday, December 29, 2014

Non-Fiction Souvenirs

The end of a back-breaking semester is always welcome; the coming of Christmas is as much for me about stopping and slowing down as it is about new beginnings, longer days, and celebrations. When the year comes to an end, I want to tidy up, finish up those last few things I'd wanted to get done, even though the timing is arbitrary. Who decided that January 1 has to be the beginning of anything? In reality, it is a day no different from any other. Yet, as a society, we've attached a meaning to this point of the calendar, which may at least have some sense if we consider our point in the wheel of the natural year.

So, here I am at home after months of taking classes, teaching classes, working full-time, leaving the house at 6:00 in the morning and returning at 10:00 at night. The cat still wakes me up at 3:45, and the longer I'm home, the more insistent he is that I get up at this time. It's as though he's reasserting his dominance over my schedule. But alas, that will not last long, as I will return to an even more grueling schedule in late January. And that means that any new blogging will probably become sporadic at best.

I have vowed not to take on any major house cleaning projects during this time; I spent several weeks this past summer re-arranging closets and dusting obscure corners. But there is still unfinished business; in particular, there is the pile of half-read library books sitting on my desk. Those of you who know me know that I work in a library, and have for many years. In fact, my first job ever was in a public library. I am now at a university library, weary of the changes in my profession, and the way in which it seems to be dooming itself inevitably. I hope that my fellow colleagues prove me wrong. But this is a digression.

The pile is relatively small; I have Denis Guenoun's book "On Europe : Philosophical Hypotheses", a collection of Lydia Davis short stories, Daniel Ogden's book on Necromancy, and some Italo Calvino essays. Mind you, I have received new books for Christmas, and others that I am anxious to begin, like Jake Stratton-Kent's "Testament of St. Cyprian the Mage". I find myself feeling some guilt and a sense of unfinished duty with regard to the other volumes. So, I have been working on finishing these before starting my new ones.

To my relief, this may not be as daunting of a task as it first appears. I finished the Davis book easily, and the Guenoun book only had about 70 pages to go. But I have another problem. When I read non-fiction, it is not enough to simply read the book and think, "Hunh! That was interesting", and send it back to the library circulation desk or put it back on the shelf. It's like visiting a new or foreign place; it's not enough to simply see it. Part of it has to come back with me. We might do this at a physical site by taking photos, or buying souvenirs (or picking one up from the site, shame shame). For me, this involves going back through the book and making notes. I can't write in a library book, so I usually have a TextEdit file or spiral notebook handy as I'm reading. If I don't do it as I go along, I have to go back and skim through everything again, making notes on key points, and pages with important quotes. If I feel the book is important material for my dissertation, I have to be even more meticulous about this process.

When I look back through my files, I find that this is not a new thing. I have pages and pages of notes from things I've read, or at least reflections on things I've read. To my surprise, I've been doing this since at least 1986--I've found makeshift folders made by stapling together pieces of colorful construction paper, and these are full of typescript pages that have lots of cross-outs and correction fluid. My mother had what I think was an old IBM Selectric, though it may have just been a clever reproduction. Not as fancy as the "memory" typewriters that were so useful for typing catalog cards, but better than the completely manual ones.

I made a lot of notes on philosophy and religion, which should not surprise anyone. It makes me recall an incident that occurred when I was in the 10th grade. I was sitting in the Children's Room of the Morris County Library. I'm not sure why I was there; it's possible that the main Reference Room was full. I was reading and making notes on Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy of Morals". It was summertime, and no one had assigned this to me; I was simply curious. The pastor of my mother's church, Father Regis, walked in to the room. He recognized me and said hello. Under his arm was a children's book--I no longer remember which one it was. He told me he was preparing for Sunday's homily. He asked what I was reading, and I showed him. "Nietzsche! Heavy stuff for high school, isn't it?"

In retrospect, I think Father Regis was right. One can read great literature and great philosophy in high school and even as an undergraduate--one might even get "into" a particular poet, essayist, or philosopher. But the experience that enables you to understand what you're reading is lacking, for the most part.

Maybe I should take that back--it's not that there's no experience, but typically only one dimension of the writing will "click" or make sense. I often think about this when I'm teaching Jung to my mythology students. Jung is a writer for the later part of life--35 years old or older, in body or in spirit. It's obvious that my students aren't fully grasping the importance of archetype theory. They can understand it in a limited way, but most of what Jung speaks about hasn't happened to many of them. And if it's happening to them, they generally haven't had the space of a few years to reflect on it.

This was true of myself as well. In college I was in love with modern and "contemporary" poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, and Elizabeth Bishop. I'm not sure I could tell you at this point why they were important to me, but they spoke to some aspect of my experience. But after years of not reading poetry, I returned to them as a doctoral student, and was knocked over by them in an entirely different way--and with the full understanding of what "modernism" was and why it was so revolutionary. But I had another 20 years of context--I could now look back at those texts and say "aha"! No doubt in another 20 years, I will be convinced that I was an idiot during my 40s. And so on.

The point is not to disparage the lack of experience in youth; after all, it's no one's fault that they haven't lived for a period of time, and there is always someone younger or older than you in terms of experience. The point is that great literature needs to be read over and over again--what you understood in high school or as an undergrad will have an entirely new level of meaning when you are forty, and when you are sixty, and when you are eighty. The notes are helpful in making me understand what I got out of the text at the time, and I'm glad I bothered to take the time to do it. That doesn't mean I won't read the texts over again at some point, but it's useful to build on what you've already retained rather than digging a new foundation and starting all over again. In the world of writing, you never know what apparently unrelated bits of reading will become relevant to your current project.

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