Browsing Through Life

By IAN McDONALD

BROWSING

“for what else is there
but books, books and the sea,
verandahs and the pages of the sea
to write of the wind and the memory
of wind whipped hair
in the sun, the colour of fire.”
—Derek Walcott

As I get older, the attractions of foreign travel and the lures of encountering new places and fresh faces are rapidly fading. I associate holiday less and less with adventure and more and more with peace and quiet. When I was young I looked forward to visiting different countries – I estimate I have visited about fifty in my life—and keenly anticipated the possibility of exotic experiences and the enlivening acquaintance of strangers. Now I can much better understand my father who at the age of about 75 entirely ceased traveling and was content quietly with my mother to turn the pages of the sea in their wind-filled house on the north coast of Antigua. I think of my father and mother in their last years in their home in Antigua and a line from Homer comes to me: “There is nothing so good and lovely as when man and wife in their home dwell together in unity of mind and disposition.”
However, when I travel now one kind of adventuring still never palls. It is in the golden realm of books. I spend days browsing in bookstores and reading the books finally purchased in the wonderfully uncommitted hours which really is what a holiday quintessentially means. In a place like Toronto these days some of the bookstores encourage you to sit and read and they have coffee shops where you can spend time between browsing. I like this civilized development – one can spend hours and hours happily this way and I do.
There is so much to put down so that one remembers. The 16th century playwright, Ben Jonson, from quite young kept a book in which he copied down passages which especially pleased him and which he found particularly “apt, wise or rightly formed.” He called the book which he made out of such passages Discoveries. We should all keep such a record.

• I find current political developments in America extremely depressing. The current strain of extreme right-wing activism represented by the absurd Tea Party movement is bringing that great nation into humiliating disrepute. Feeling as I do, I was surprised to come across a passage from a long time ago which expresses much of what I think the Republicans in America have again become. This is from a letter which the author H.P. Lovecraft wrote to a friend in 1936.

• As for the Republicans – how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience?”

• In plays notice how the scenes get shorter and the action speeds up towards the end. In childhood, afternoons extend for seeming years but for the old years flicker past like brief afternoons. After eighty, the playwright Christopher Fry pointed out, you seem to be having breakfast every five minutes. And what is particularly mortifying is how much time is wasted: as Lord Byron entered in his journal, “When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning – how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.”

• But then, beyond this summer of a dormouse, there is some hope of immortality. For the deeply religious that is a certainty which it must be good to experience. For those with children – and in my case a recent grandson to join three other grand-children – there is the smaller but still triumphant satisfaction that one has found a way to outlive mortality. Thomas Hardy put it exactly in his poem “Heredity”:

“I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace,
Through time to time anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.
The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance – that is I;
The eternal thing in man
That heeds no call to die.”

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