Read an ExcerptThe Browser's Ecstasy
A Meditation on Reading
By Geoffrey O'Brien Counterpoint Press
Copyright © 2003 Geoffrey O'Brien
All right reserved.
A Reunion of Old Acquaintances
* * *
We had already been talking about books for several hours.
It may have been Marjorie who began it, although Rex was quick enough to grab hold of the theme and spin us off into one of his characteristic whimsical flights, in the confidence that the inevitably sober Melchior would bring the talk back to earth. Supper was long since over, and we were sprawled those of us who had nowhere particular to go and nothing we would rather do than toss about odd anecdotes and random inventions on the tatty but comfortable armchairs and the single battered sofa in what passed for a sitting room.
The rough weather brewing outside only made us more aware of how delightfully situated we were. It was exactly like a scene in a novel where, mysteriously, none of the characters appears to have any obligations or responsibilities beyond helping the story unfold. Indolently we savored the circulating talk, hanging on the very pauses and momentary hesitations as intently as on the most eloquent outbursts.
It had gotten to that point in any such gathering where themere fact of talking extends magical possibilities. So magical that even those who refrained almost religiously from speech the austere Phyllida, for instance, locked in what looked like scornful communion with her cigarette, standing with her back to a sixteenth-century map of Atlantic trade routes seemed to vibrate to the rapid counter-rhythms of the discussion. From time to time someone got up, paced back and forth in front of the mantelpiece, stooped to refill a glass. The air was smoky and the talk constant, accelerated, a bit too loud at moments.
That we should end up talking about books was almost inevitable. Books were strewn about the room, in no particular order, on the mantel wedged between bookends shaped like men-at-arms, piled up promiscuously on side tables, gathering dust in corners; one (an economics textbook with a torn cover) had been jammed against the door to keep a draft from creeping in. No telling how many decades some of those books had been in the room: one by one they had washed up, books of no particular interest to anyone and hence abandoned to a common space. There was a guide (sadly out of date) to the restaurants and entertainments of Toronto and vicinity; a detective novel by an industrious but none too inspired imitator of Agatha christie; a monograph likening certain legends of Micronesia to the structure of certain experimental novels; a study of the inner lift of mid-level managers that had made considerable impact when published in the immediate aftermath of the Suez crisis; a slim but dauntingly opaque treatise called simply Thoughts as Objects; and, flung carelessly in a corner (the one item that appeared to have been read in full and repeatedly), a thick paperback with a torn cover on which a buxom adventuress and a brawny adventurer posed against a collage of palm trees, schooners, and glittering ballrooms. All in all it was an average catch of Gutenbergian flotsam.
What, in any case, could have been more natural to us than to talk about books? We were bookish people, steeped in a conversation about books that had already lasted years. We had read so many novels that our lives (our lives being definable as what became of us in the intervals between reading novels) had themselves inevitably become a sort of messy open-ended novel. The space between the novels we read and the novel we lived was a zone of cunningly sustained indeterminacy where we were free to meditate on the reciprocity linking the rejected lover drowned in the pond and the anxious vacation à trois, the fatal letter of denunciation and the missed train on Monday morning, the plague on the estate and the disastrous dinner party, the foreign invasion and the stymied promotion, the masked ball interrupted by madness and the badminton match interrupted by an unusually brisk August breeze. Was it not a system of reflections, of imitations so subtle that the observer could hardly tell which was the model and which the copy?
Books went from hand to hand among us. With the exchange of a book many a love affair had begun; with a sudden change of opinion about the merits of a particular book had been signaled many a rupture of relations. At times one or another of us had found a book truly superior, capable of absorbing and replacing all the rest of them, and this had led to many chilling disagreements, to fierce and sometimes nearly violent rejoinders. There were regrets and denunciations; beloved books that were finally found unworthy; despised books in whose pages hidden riches were at length discovered. Sometimes these things had to be worked out chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence. And how many unuttered curses and unresolved quarrels had been relegated to the margins of the kind of book in which it was still permissible to challenge one's enemy to a duel, or to hire assassins among the riffraff of the rue Saint-Lazare?
But all that was years ago. What was broken off with books had later been joined together again with books, subsequent chapters emended and elaborated what earlier chapters had recklessly truncated and defaced. Through books we felt we lived multiple existences not precisely our own, lives of monastic austerity or courtly riot or flyblown squalor. To talk about those books, those lives, was a further interweaving that made them even more profoundly part of us.
We would, surely, have been quite lost without them. Yet when we talked about them it felt oddly like talking about nothing at all, like talking about weather or furniture. Tonight, for instance: no reason to believe that this discussion would have any more decisive consequences than the thousand and one discussions that had preceded it. We did not look to any impending resolution; we simply continued.
Excerpted from The Browser's Ecstasy by Geoffrey O'Brien Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey O'Brien. Excerpted by permission.
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