I’ve always considered the term ‘bookish’, which you use in your profile, as being somewhat strange, something which doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head but plays around or even avoids what a person means or wishes to say. It suggests to me that this person’s character is like a book, that they feel themselves to be a life within two covers, available to other people who wish to read it, but enclosed within a small space hardly suited to expansion. They are accessible but, at the same time, their story is at an end, and they only await the moment when a reader – the viewer from outside their life – comes to the final page, closes the covers once more, and consigns their life to a dark corner on some dusty bookshelf. Of course, we all hope this is not true, that there is still life there and that this life continues in one form or another. Still, I suppose the term ‘bookish’ is preferable to ‘highly-intelligent’ or even ‘intelligent’, which I have seen many times, often accompanied by some of the worst personal descriptions imaginable, and a use of language which belies the level of personal knowledge, life experience or even intelligence – innate or educational – which can be assigned to that person. I’d much prefer the term ‘booklover’, although this may seem old-fashioned in our modern, highly technological, almost virtual lives, as it suggests someone who has an affinity with books, who appreciates them and considers them a part of his or her life. I am quite happy to consider myself a booklover, although others might prefer the terms ‘obsessed’ or ‘librarian’. Not that being called a librarian is a bad thing, but obsessed does, I think, go one step too far.
Well-read is another good term which I appreciate, and which suggests that the right books have been read; although what the right books are these days is open to dispute. There are no more discussions: everyone has their own opinion and, of course, this opinion is the right one which others should follow; no discussion, merely acceptance. It is understandable why George Orwell’s 1984 has hit the bestseller lists once more. Well-read, for me, includes such authors as Cicero and Plato through Ficino, Dante, de Montaigne to Orwell, Huxley and Barnes. These are the first names across three different eras which come to mind, but someone who is well-read will have heard of them, at least, and have read works connected to their writings, referring to their publications, their train of thought, their ideals. Today these names are hardly ever mentioned, and well-read is someone who has managed the entire Harry Potter series and can quote Terry Pratchett, or who can read a simple book without stumbling over longer words. Well-read is someone who understands all the abbreviations used to circumvent the rationing of characters to a mere one hundred and forty on Twitter.
Knowledge is nothing if the mind’s not there
as Stobaeus wrote – or perhaps quoted himself, being a collector of other people’s words – anyone can read, can gather a form of intelligence, can heap up masses of information and knowledge, which is useless if they are incapable of working through what they have read or found, and coming to a conclusion or, just as good, being capable of discussing their discoveries and assessing them against other information, gained from experience or those around them. We may read all we wish, but if we cannot understand and explain what we have read…
In fact, Stobaeus is a perfect example of a learned person – a book person – who collected information and passed it on to others, but who appears to have no existence himself. It is thought he might have lived in the fifth century, speculated that he could have been a Christian, but it is not certain, known that he collected and published. The perfect example of knowledge and wisdom passed down through the generations, where the body disappears and only that which has been gathered remains. How that idea would scare people today! This overwhelming desire to be remembered for something, to be present in our minds at all times through constant status updates, through memorial pages on Facebook, through – effectively – nothing worth remembering; nothing laudable; nothing of note whatsoever. Manilius:
Fortune cares not what cause prevails, or whose,
But wanders in our midst, unheeding, free.
We rush from one appointment to another, never having time to do that which we really desire, and the books remain, patiently, containing all their wisdom, on bookshelves across the world, outliving us. Marcus Tullius Cicero is no longer alive, but his body of work still survives, and this is the only body we need, those of us who love books. We know what he looked like, and where he lived. We know who he mixed with, what he did from birth through to his murder at the hands of soldiers in the pay of Mark Antony. We cannot live his life – even if he’d had Facebook and Twitter in ancient Rome, we’d not be able to – but we can live his experiences through hundreds of letters, through orations and court proceedings and the memories of friends and enemies. Much the same with Alexander von Humboldt, who has come back into the glare of public scrutiny since the publication of Andrea Wulf’s award-winning biography: we cannot live his life as he travelled the world, exploring and discovering, but his experiences, his more than fifty thousand letters and his books, live on. Sometimes real life is considerably more exciting than fiction – although I have the greatest respect for J. K. Rowling and her literary achievements – if we take the time to slow down, to stop occasionally, and to enjoy.
My mind will not budge unless my legs move it. Those who study without a book are all in the same boat.
I stumbled over this sentence whilst reading Michel de Montaigne recently, and wondered whether the body was meant, rather than the mind. He is describing his library and the thought processes he uses when writing – de Montaigne is famous for his many essays on life – and the fact that he needs the sixteen paces of space in front of his bookshelves to keep his mind awake; he cannot write unless he has the ability to move and to think between lines, between ideas. And it is the mind which needs constant movement, input, information, stimulus in one form or another. Funnily enough, I know exactly how he felt: I write my letters surrounded on three sides by books, and need to be able to not just see them but, at the right time, reach out and take one down to check a quotation or a reference to something. Naturally not just with letter writing. Although I am inclined to quote at random – hopefully something which fits with the written thought.
You say elsewhere – this is a reference I do not have – that you receive many letters; the comment I believe was that your usual six or seven a month had gone up into the thousands. I am sure picking one or two people out to write to regularly would have been an absolute nightmare but, weighing the benefits, such a wide selection of people writing must have brought one or two capable of stringing a few words together, capable of writing intelligently. There is nothing more frustrating, for me at least, than spending a considerable amount of time creating something, and then having it fall in the hands of philistines; not that I would normally notice since my writing rarely gains any form of reply from the small readership I convince myself has grown up around me. This is, of course, separate from letter writing, where the finest criticism of a work is levelled by other means. I had the pleasure of one such criticism, of the finest variety, recently, although I could almost claim it happened because my letter was so overwhelming, so complete and perfect, that the recipient could find no words of their own. In fact, all that happened was someone sent me my own letter back again, in a new envelope and at great expense, without any comment. I find people puzzling at times.
I would like to think that letter writers put a great deal of time and thought into their works, as if they were going to be published for a wider audience, but without the intention of publishing and without the fake style of something deemed only for the public. Letter writing is something personal, between two people, and can be very intimate indeed; not in a sexual manner, although I do not doubt that happens too, but in an intellectual way. We share things which might not otherwise be said, or might be dangerous to say in certain company. Michel de Montaigne could almost have been considering letter writing when he wrote:
If anyone tells me that it is degrading the Muses to use them only as a plaything and a pastime, he does not know, as I do, the value of pleasure, play, and pastime. I would almost say that any other aim is ridiculous.
In my youth I studied for ostentation; later, a little to gain wisdom; now for recreation; never for gain.
To a certain extent we allow our private selves to appear on paper when writing letters to friends and acquaintances, perhaps not so much to other people. The Muse should, though, always be there, otherwise what is the point in writing? Without the Muse our letters would be a mere shopping list of events, with no depth or interest in them whatsoever. I wonder how many of those thousands of letters you received echoed one another; how many people had the same thoughts or, worse, spent the same amount of time putting pen to paper with something other than altruistic thoughts in their minds. I wonder how many other letters they penned, to people elsewhere who had achieved some form of fame, entered the limelight for whatever reason. I wonder, finally, what their lives must be like. Of course, I do not know the contents of the letters you received, but I can imagine them having read those addressed to other people.
Letter writing is about communication, whether you know the recipient, the writer, or not. It is about passing on information, the benefit of your wisdom, experiences which those others cannot imagine or live themselves. It can be a simple sign of life, or even a life-saver. And it is about receiving all of the above too; personal, private, intimate or whatever. Letter writing is, to me, real communication between two people: it allows the one to express themselves fully without fear of interruption or, hopefully, distraction. It allows the second time to consider, in the same manner. There is no body language, no nuances of tone, it is clear and clean, unsullied. Mostly. I’m sure we can both bring out plenty of examples showing the opposite, the downright rude, the uneducated, those who have not spent their given time to think things through. I wish more people would allow themselves the time to consult their Muse, to write for the sheer pleasure of writing, and not just with some ulterior motive such as material gain.
In my old age I study – if you can call it that – for the sheer pleasure of reading what other people have learned, what they have experienced in their lives. Alexander von Humboldt is one I’ve already mentioned, there are so many more. And there is also the hope that this pleasure I feel can be passed on to others somewhere along the line so that they, in their own way, learn to enjoy rather than feeling, as I did in my schooldays, that reading and writing are things you have to do, commitments, obligations, however you wish to term it. One of the worst things about schooling is this feeling against reading and writing many carry with them after graduation: I couldn’t touch Shakespeare for several years after my term in the education system ended; and can only thank those who thought they were teaching me for this . Reading for pleasure, to learn at your own speed, to take what you need, and to enjoy life as a result. No stress, no strain.
For if the power of mind has been so changed
That all remembrance of the past has fled,
That is not far, methinks, from being dead.
Nothing much has changed since Lucretius wrote these words, sadly, and I doubt that much will change in the future either.
I’m not sure whether I’ve come a full circle with my written thoughts today or not; I’m not sure whether my thoughts are anything like a circle, more, I suspect, like a crash course through a jungle of thoughts on two subjects, neither of which has really been delved as deep into as could be possible. But presenting ideas out-of-the-blue is not the easiest occupation in the world, no matter how enjoyable it may be for those taking part. Perhaps it has brought some pleasure elsewhere; I have certainly enjoyed the writing part.