Sunday, June 19, 2011


"How can one transmit to others the infinite Aleph, which my timorous memory can scarcely contain?"

Jorge Luis Borges

Some time ago Linda Holmes at NPR wrote a wonderful piece observing that, by virtue of sheer plenitude of space and time, each of us is destined to miss out on the vast majority of whatever it is we love in life. Far from being a downer, it is comforting and even self-transcending to realize that no matter how assiduous or dynamic one may be, there are just more people to meet, books to read, films to see, or sunsets to witness than any one life can manage. It is a reminder that even if, as the cliche goes, the world is much shrunken owing to the speed of travel and communication, one can divide infinity many times over and still be left with infinity. To live a lifetime is to gaze upon an ocean of experience, yet be allowed to dip one's hand in the water only once.

One consequence of having a large "physical" library (as opposed to having a Kindle sitting unobtrusively on the table) is that the many hundreds of tomes mutely gaze outward, as if in reproach of my all-too-human forgetfulness. My eight-year-old has asked before, "Daddy, why do you have all of these books if you can get them all on the computer?" One reason is that my recall isn't what it once was, and my library is one kind of living personal record. Many volumes I do dip into now and again--a poem here, an essay or short story there--but how many, realistically, will I live to reread altogether?

For some 20 years--roughly, from 15 to 35--I was a prolific reader, of all genres, but particularly fiction. You know: the canon, the great books (and many that were not-so-great). While I still read, of course, typical life circumstances have much reduced the time available for it. Whether by coincidence or not, I find myself less patient with fiction, and more given to non-fiction, than used to be the case, but I continue to fight that. Proust I feel sure I will live to reread, all 3000 pages. But the 1000 pages of Les Miserables? Probably not. Much of Dickens I hope to reread, but probably not Barnaby Rudge. Recently I read Harold Bloom claiming that rereading Samuel Richardson's Clarissa was a great priority. Really? I've never read Richardson even once. Do I need to read him before expending time on rereading Jonathan Swift? And should I do that before, or after, I brush up on American history?

Inasmuch as there is nothing outside of reality, fiction is merely a peculiar branch of non-fiction, reality's myriad conscious self-reflections. Per Stendhal, a novel is a mirror carried along a main road, but it is a puzzling kind of mirror, with surprising concavities and convexities. Fiction seeks reflections that reverberate and recreate reality in microcosm, a la Borges's Aleph. A successful work of art achieves a unity that symbolically reproduces the completeness of reality. Non-fiction is always a magnifying glass, if not a microscope--clarity is purchased at the expense of breadth. Fiction is a necessarily distorting mirror, since any simple mirror or magnifying glass capable of capturing everything we care about would have to be as large as the universe itself.

The stakes are high in the arts--the potential payoff is high, but when fiction seriously fails, it is upsetting, because it is as if reality itself is being mocked or even maimed. Bad non-fiction is like a lie, which is bad enough, but bad fiction is like blasphemy. I forever vacillate between Plato--who saw the arts as begetting deceptive images (among the myriad shadows on the wall of the cave), distractions from the pursuit of truth--and Aristotle, who argued that poetry at its best reveals necessary truths, while history merely documents contingencies. Perhaps it is just a matter of epistemological and existential focus, the iris of the inquisitive mind.


The Alienist said...

I enjoyed this post (and am pleasantly surprised that you are still posting)! I thought you had gone.

In wrestling with the value of fiction and non-fiction, I sometimes think of it like the difference between updating my CV and writing an autobiography. My CV never really seems to capture my life as I live it no matter how many facts I include. My autobiography, however, could begin to convey what it is like to live my life, but the other individuals involved in my life would likely dispute my subjective version of the "facts."

I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction, but I read them for different reasons.

Retriever said...

Nice. One reason we keep a huge library and still haunt second hand booksales (despite actually using kindles and iPads more often day to day to read) is that public libraries have abandonned the canon and gone for lending statistics as criteria for keeping books (four members of the family have had part library jobs over the years and seen the transformation). This means that if you don't own something, you may not be able to get to it when you want to look something up.

I read mostly non fiction because of residual Puritanism from relatives hammering into menhow ignorant I was and how frivolous novels were. And yet I love some novels. But in a kind of excerpted way. They are frustrating to reread because you k ow how they turn out. And yet non fiction becomes obsolete faster...cookbooks are safe. :). Poetry, tho I hate most all modern poets. Hmmmm. I tend to like things my friends have written.

Novalis said...

Right, I guess it was Pound who said that "Literature is news that stays news."