The Nightly Adventures of a Lost Reader

I love all these Delphi works – not that they have the best translations (they don’t!), but for the convenience of having all the tidbits and trivia of an author’s Oeuvre. As a child we had those standard issue classics that probably lined every middle-class home in America; along with encyclopedias, children’s books, etc.. To think that one can have the complete works of all those classic authors, and all the minor and less known one’s stored on a small memory chips the size of your finger is mind blowing. Yet, in our age know one even thinks about it; it’s become that trivial and ubiquitous. A library in the pocket, on your favorite e-reader or tablet. As if the Great Library of Alexandria were the size of a popsicle. The whole notion of entering an actual building where they store books in the old fashioned leather backed covers seems passé. Alberto Manguel in the The Library at Night describes the old sensation:

The love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned. No one stepping for the first time into a room made of books can know instinctively how to behave, what is expected, what is promised, what is allowed. One may be overcome by horror-at the clutter or the vastness, the stillness, the mocking reminder of everything one doesn’t know, the surveillance-and some of that overwhelming whelming feeling may cling on, even after the rituals and conventions are learned, the geography mapped, the natives found friendly.

When was the last time you actually visited a real library? In our time its a download and pop it in one’s favorite reader. Who has time to visit libraries? Speed. The age of accelerating knowledge, the temporal nosedive into the lost labyrinths of bits and data, the search and seizure of those fragments of culture that remain on the lost horizon of our verbal systems. Some rebel against the digital tribes, seek to slow down the process making the cost of a bit the same as a tree. Of course we all know what happened to vinyls, and then CD’s… the list could go on and on… technology will out these old dinosaurs and in a few years books will give way to the digital world for good. Then the collectors will have a field day selling and buying all those rare editions of one’s favorite author in actual hard bound books. In a couple generations (if we survive) the notion of a library and books will seem like museums, places that are nice of visit to understand the dark ages of one’s parents and grandparents.

Translation has been iffy at best, and atrocious if you had intentions of scholarly pursuits. But in our age the notion of a World Literature is not only a possibility, but part and partial of the way things are in the marketplace and even in the digital mindset; which is after all the only thing left of culture we have, right? As the years move forward translators online, and one’s downloadable will become better and better; and, along with a good old fashioned dictionary from your favorite author from some exotic (?) land one will be able to translate the latest hot selling work of philosophy, literature, poetry, etc. without the need of a long and tedious transliteration. Oh, sure, it might not be perfect, but what is? – Yet, it will suffice (as they say!) and allow you to get on with the job of reading your favorite author from India, China, South Africa, South America, and any number of countries and regions that once were supposed backwaters of culture (says who?).

I’m an old man now… well just turned sixty-four, actually. Want go there… but tell the truth I’d of given my eye teeth to be born into this time with all the gadgets and conveniences for learning and reading. Access. Growing up, living in a backwater southern Texas Oil Boom town was like living on Mars. One didn’t know culture existed, much less that books were something to open and read. Yes. Anti-Intellectualism was not something enforced, it was just part of a working class world down south… men worked 10-15 hours, came home, ate, laughed, showered, went to bed, got up and started it all over… Women worked the house like men worked the oil fields, long and hard. No one had time to read. Yet, my parents bought all the classics, encyclopedias, children’s books, etc., lined them up on nice shiny shelves. Pointed to them once in a while and said: “We bought those for you, why don’t you read them?” Of course, puzzled, I’d wander through the books, pick out the ones with pictures in them, sit down and try to make heads or tails of the captions or little stories, but not being much of a reader or knowing what the fuss was about all these books I’d put it back up and go back to my comic books stuffed under my bed, or my baseball cards with all the stats of my favorite players. That was culture…

Of course becoming a teenager in the sixties changed all that forever. For me it was watching President Kennedy on TV riding through Dallas, Texas one bright and sunny day that changed it for me. Watching a man die on TV as a young man was like – well, let’s face it – I had no clue it was “real”… I thought everything on TV was a sort of comic book world, nothing real about it. It would take my parents to make it real… They seemed so upset about what happened on TV that it made me feel uneasy about life for the first time… made me think about what that box of light with all those strange creatures that looked, and talked, and acted like us really were doing. What was real, and what wasn’t? Made me curious enough to begin asking questions… oh, my parents hated me after that… so many questions I had that my mother forced me to sit down and begin reading the encyclopedia about history, war, violence, assassination, and all the uneasy things men do to each other… terrible awakening it was. I began having nightmares from that time… but I read, and read, and read… and when I finished all of that encyclopedia I began in on everything else on those shelves.

Which of course as you probably have guessed hasn’t stopped… Of late been dipping nightly into Balzac and Dickens, Zola, James, and Hardy – and, the Russian’s Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Quite an amalgam… each having their own stance, flavor, and intellect; and, each working in some sense in the maximalist or epic prose traditions. Just finishing a story of Balzac’s for whom I have a fondness. His humor, biting irony and the vitality of his exuberant and endless ability to hold you, capture your attention, and allow you to enter his parallel world of Paris is something I’ve yet to find in our current crop of writers. As many would say, that’s that… ours is a fragmentary age, such as Balzac’s was part of a world we should be happy is gone, a class driven society whose demarcated social boundaries cordoned off the rich from the poor, etc.; that in our own age seems peripheral at best, and less to do with social boundaries as much as the bottom line: money.  Who cares how the rich live? The lifestyles of the rich and ignorant plutocrats are the least of our problems, so smothering us with their inane lives is best left to the next twit…

Ours is a pornographic age of Big Brother and Reality TV. The farcical lives of idiot politicians and mediatainment in which reality is lived as a novel, and precludes one actually authoring it in a best seller. Whatever a writer could say anymore is probably occurring on the OpEd Page or in the next Twit or FB entry, anyway; so why bother…. reality has overtaken fiction on the stage of art and life. The distance between art and life, appearance and reality is lost forever in the integral reality of Baudrillard’s dark simulacrum without our having the necessary distance to see it. Life is best left to the smirks of self-appointed parodists and twitter Moghuls of the slipstream effect, than to paid authors who would only reduplicate the inanity of the lifestyles of the rich and idiotic.

So I leave you with Balzac whose ironies  and critiques of Parisian society went hand in hand with his vitalist and exuberant style and fervor, taking in stride every little foible with that light humor that befits an aristocrat of the spirit if not the flesh. Speaking of the Parisian temperament the anonymous narrator of this story (Sarrasine) says:

“In no other country, perhaps, is Vespasian’s maxim more thoroughly understood. Here gold pieces, even when stained with blood or mud, betray nothing, and represent everything. Provided that good society knows the amount of your fortune, you are classed among those figures which equal yours, and no one asks to see your credentials, because everybody knows how little they cost. In a city where social problems are solved by algebraic equations, adventurers have many chances in their favor.”

-Honoré de Balzac, Sarassine

Balzac was a commoner, and added the “de” to his name early on. Like Fitzgerald in America, Balzac envied the top tier and mingled freely among them; yet, felt the pangs of his own lack of an aristocratic heritage. He’d spend his evenings in adventures and outings into society, and then return home to quiet meal; and, from midnight to dawn he would write his tales of a thousand-and-one-worlds of Parisian Society in his La Comédie humaine.

The reference to Vespasian’s gold coins is in regard to the image of Pax on the back (tail) side of his own Imperial coins:

Pax, regarded by the ancients as a goddess, was worshipped not only at Rome but also at Athens. Her altar could not be stained with blood. Claudius began the construction of a magnificent temple to her honor, which Vespasian finished, in the Via Sacra. The attributes of Peace are the hasta pura, the olive branch, the cornucopia, and often the caduceus. Sometimes she is represented setting fire to a pile of arms.


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