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Friday, February 8, 2008
Demands on the Brain
“Have you read this one yet?” a browser asks, indicating one of the new books on the counter. I must confess: I have not read them all and will never be “caught up.” How would it be possible to keep up with new releases, with the seductive siren song of so many tempting old books calling my name? Some people read only new books, some only old; some find value only in nonfiction, while others read nothing but novels. I’m a book omnivore. The one genre I don’t read is science fiction, but there’s nothing supercilious in this neglect: as is the case with raw oysters, I just don’t get it. Other people get it and love it, and that’s fine.
The book that’s been holding me hostage this week is a novel by James Ramsey Ullman, published back in 1958. THE DAY ON FIRE is “loosely based” on the life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and last night I rivaled our grandson’s reading intensity, devouring 100 pages. The author names his main character Claude Morel, and without knowing the details of Rimbaud’s life it’s impossible to know how much is invented, but even where it may not be factual, the story feels true. The loneliness of the gifted boy, understood by no one in his small town, is heart-breaking, even as the boy--not understanding much himself about himself and not much interested in understanding others, whom he sees as dull, small-minded and hypocritical--does everything possible to make sure he will be rejected and reviled. It is the pride of Nietzsche, the pride of the unhappy adolescent: “No one can possibly understand or appreciate me!” And yet the genius is real, along with the pain.
The demands of philosophy and art (doing the former, reading about the latter) got me to thinking today that other people besides myself might need some mental R&R. I remembered an old friend who always, this time of year, when sales got slow in her bookstore, put out a big jigsaw puzzle to amuse herself and friends and browsers. The brain is still working, but not in the same way, not (probably) in the same areas. So if you need a break, come on down tomorrow, Saturday, and try to fit a few pieces together. (It’s a farm scene.) I’ll put on the coffee pot when I get here at 10 o’clock.