1. i’m in Kassel for a long filthy weekend. Juniper, my hostess, has an interesting library of books picked up in Oxfam, from Boomerang (some kind of free book exchange point), from friends & enemies. i read AJ Jacob’s My Life as an Experiment in two days – a highly worthwhile book, which Juniper found in a box outside Boomerang. Now i’ve moved onto Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country. i remember reading two other BB books but can remember little of either, not even the titles. They all tend to have the same cover design so i had no idea if i’d read this book before – in any case, if i had, it would have been years ago.

My memory is generally very good (pedantic), so it’s strange to read and have a vague sense that this may be the second time. Fifteen years ago i wouldn’t have read on had i not been sure it was new – too many things to read, with the impatience of disgusting youth. In my early old age, i find i enjoy reading with the reflection that i’ve quite possibly read this before but retained absolutely nothing; why, i don’t know – perhaps the sense that i am obliviously connecting to a possible earlier self, that this knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain but doesn’t make itself presently felt. In this case, it’s how human life ordinarily goes on: i sometimes think back to times when i was unknowingly in the same place as my last life, and how totally oblivious i was, how there wasn’t the slightest quiver of recognition. Even once meeting someone from that last life just seemed an amusing encounter with a dotty old woman (i was then 20/21 and had last seen her when i was dying and she was young). So it is that i don’t furrow my already furrowed-by-old-age brow to recall if i’ve read this book before; i content myself with enjoying the present reading.

2. As it happens, i have read the Bryson book before. i got 94 pages in before remembering an essay (about the vastness of New Hampshire forests, where a sizeable plane crashed without leaving a trace). Now memory ravels up a pattern. i think i read this book in winter 2006, when living with Bob the Coward, a kind-of-friend from university. Reading it, i realised how many of Bob’s wise-man-of-the-world tales actually came from this one book: an anecdote about the differences between UK and US immigration bureaucracy, another about cupholders and customer service, etc. etc. As a student, Bob would trot these out with a worldly glitter in his eyes from time to time, as if sharing some piece of initiatory journalistic lore. Given he was only 18 at the time, he possessed an impressive range of worldly anecdotes, the kind to be exchanged by grey-whiskered journalist king-makers in a London club, over cognac and cigarettes. Later i found that almost everything he said was taken from someone else (usually Bill Bryson) but somehow absorbed within his own willed self-image as the expert man of the world and connoisseur of everything, so as to leave no trace of its origin. (He now works in Marketing.)

It struck me as strange that so many of his worldly anecdotes were culled from this one book, though he wasn’t a big reader. Perhaps, for the youthful Bob the Coward, Bryson was his model for adulthood and so he absorbed every detail.

3. There are books you encounter early on, and read and re-read until they become a part of your character; they form how you look at the world and your self. For me, one was The Lord of the Rings; you could say it predisposed me to credit things like magic, and to expect life to be interesting and dangerous and full of vivid and strange characters and pain and beauty and possible heroism and dwarves and trees and mud and drunkedness and dragons and hand-to-hand combat and long walks and pipe tobacco and sudden death and jollity and castles. But then even aged 13 (when books took me over) i already had no interest in horror or science fiction, and could read even the shittiest Fantasy books with something like pleasure, so the blame must lay further back.

There are books which gripped me at a time in my life, and greatly influenced me, until my life changed. Camus, for example, when i was 20 (not The Stranger, which i found uninteresting, but The Fall and the non-fiction The Myth of Sisyphus); his influence lasted a good few years, until i became aware of a reality beyond the material, at which point the “absurd” ceased to hold me. i suppose my strongest post-Tolkien influences are TS Eliot and Dante, because i read them so often, to the point of memorising a good 700 lines of Eliot and a canto of Inferno. In a sense, one could see these as continuations of Tolkien – not so many dwarves and tobacco, but a similar sense of the intense significance of life, for example that a mean action is not merely shoddy but actually damnable.

4. i don’t expect anyone to share these affinities, personal as they are. Many people like Tolkien for reasons a thousand miles from mine, and then there are academics who profess to “be passionate about” Dante or TS Eliot (which irritates me more than bearded geeks who watch the shitty Lord of the Rings films every weekend). i feel increasingly uninterested in whether the books i like are on a university syllabus or part of the accepted canon, or even much good; and since i don’t want to prosleytise i can allow myself the pleasure of reading without paying much heed to the latest, or even the oldest, judgements. i wouldn’t want everyone, or even just every intelligent reader, to share my tastes, anymore than i would want them to dress like me and talk like me.

Luckily, as a mere & occasional blogger and itinerant English teacher i can just read what i like and bear no responsibility for taste. It would be different if i were a tweed-clad don: then i would probably refuse to teach anything later than 1970 (and even that is too late). As an actual English-as-a-foreign-language teacher i keep my tastes to myself, and as a blogger i feel tired of the pompous and censorious judgements floating through the vile aether. The great thing about reading is the privacy, the contact only with the author – and not the everyday, doubtless opinionated and scurvy author, but that which was greatest and deepest in his imagination.

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