For James McDonald at The Printed Word

To care about words, to have a stake in what is written, to believe in the power of books –this overwhelms the rest, and beside it, one’s life becomes very small. – Paul Auster

By J.S. Porter

In winter, I watch detective stories with my wife. In summer, we watch the Blue Jays together. In all seasons, in all weathers, we read.

I also take our Black Labrador for walks, take my 98-year-old mother for coffee, read to my grandsons, see a few friends, do a few chores – not nearly as many as my wife would like—but mostly I hang around, mess around, with words. I’m in love with what Shakespeare calls “household words” and “fire-new words,” with foreign words like saudade where simply to say it conjures melancholy, and words from Dr. Seuss where the thunder goes boom , the lightning goes splat, and the rain goes dibble dibble dop.

I read, therefore, I am. I read in the doctor’s office, on the bus, in the bathroom. I once read to build a self, and now I think I read to mend its broken parts. In my birth family, my mother read, my sister read –I was slow to learn the skill—and my father read, even with the handicap of his poor eyesight.

My father’s governing word was more. Feel more, imagine more, think more, read more, write more, see more, do more— be more. Books were the central part of his “more.” They were his transport to dreamland, his ticket out of Ireland—Shakespeare his North Star, and Wordsworth, just a few stars south.

When I was growing up in Oxford Mills and Cardiff, I had few friends. I dreamt and slept and imagined and read, not very much, but enough. My father was away at school, he was a reader, he had a library. I read to be close to him.

I would walk into his personal library and look at his books, occasionally picking one up to see what he had underlined or where he had written in the margin. When he was away on trips, he’d bring me back books. I still have a good collection of Penguins from the International Poets’ Series and beautifully-bound hardback copies of Dostoevsky’s novels. Dad played records of English actors mellifluously reading the poems of Blake and Wordsworth. He gave me at a young age biographies of famous people, including Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

By bedside at the moment, I have: Mónica Maristain’s Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations; Last Love Poems of Paul Eluard; Proust by Edmund White; Borges’ Conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari; J. D. McClatchy’s Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book; Charles Wright’s Buffalo Yoga; Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words; and David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels. I see dad’s influence and presence in every volume, especially with the books on conversations.

Virginia Woolf in her essay “Hours in a Library” writes eloquently on reading. She argues that “the true reader is essentially young. The great season for reading is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.” There’s some truth in what she says. Proust read Ruskin at a young age and that changed the trajectory of his life. Hemingway read Turgenev as a young man in Paris and the experience went straight to his bloodstream.

Between eighteen and twenty-four, you have an energy, a vigour, that you may not have again. You have a hunger, and time to sate the hunger, time to dream and daydream and internalize and identify. I know in Zambia, the place of my first writing, I did my broadest, if not my deepest, reading. In the university bookstore in Lusaka, I purchased as many volumes of Fontana’s Modern Masters Series as I could and read my way through critical biographies of masters in the arts and sciences. I wanted to educate myself.

Alas, to read is to read with gaps, holes, neglects. I’ve yet to read Homer’s The Iliad or Dante’s Divine Comedy or a novel by Jane Austen. I also misread. Have you read the novel for young adults called The Book Thief? I took a shockingly long time before I realized that the narrator in the novel was Death itself. Sometimes one reads with shame and embarrassment. Far too often, I’ve skimmed, raided, skipped and raced even while knowing a great work only opens from slow, meditative readings. You read a few words and dream, read a few more words and dream some more.

Poetry is my first and principal love in reading; it’s the place where I dream most.  New poems by friends Susan McCaslin and John Reibetanz brighten my day. Novels are a chore. Yes, I enjoyed Eureka Street, The Human Stain, English Music, Blood Meridian, The Road and The Enigma of Arrival, and dozens of other novels. However, if my wife and I are on vacation in Cuba, the novel is not where I turn for nourishment.

I turn to personal documents – letters (Ted Hughes is as good as Keats in a letter), diaries (Anaïs Nin’s are very good), journals (I’m still entranced by Thomas Merton’s mix of poetry and politics), notes (Simone Weil on anything is worthwhile) –and the prose of poets (the prose of Don McKay and Dennis Lee, for instance) has such energy, such inventiveness.  Marginal forms. Scraps and fragments but pulsing with life. The swoop of a single thought by Simone Weil can sum up thousands of years of human history: “Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.”

Read on, I tell myself, read on.