Monday, November 19, 2007

Confessions of a book addict

It is only quite lately that I have considered that my intense relationship with reading could perhaps be seen as somewhat eccentric. It has been such an integral part of my life that I haven't really noticed my reading habit as anything very odd. By the age of eleven I already had a system set: there were two libraries that I would visit weekly, our own municipal library and the provincial library in Seinäjoki. I would have a maximum limit of eight books for each visit and in most times I reached that limit. That made on average ca 13-16 books per week for about ten years. (How that was manageable, I don't know.)

About the time of my tenth birthday I had already exhausted the children's departments and had moved on to adult shelves. So, I was a true addict already then, an escape artist, with my thoughts most of the time anywhere else than in the fairly grim reality that was my life those times. Anything went: thrillers, detective stories, serious novels, fantasy, science fiction, history, biography, even poetry already in those early days - I was not a discriminating reader, if anything the preference was for the lighter stuff that I now see was often horribly badly written.

This I suppose is still fairly understandable - I was growing up in any case, gradually getting more interested in more than mere escape, reflecting, reconciling books with experience and vice versa. But that magical initial burst is still quite inexlicable to me: around the age of 8 years I read all the books we had at home (well, not quite all: I mostly skipped, strangely, the plentiful religious literature there was). For the time and place we had a wide selection with the emphasis on the classic Finnish fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. This selection was combined with an utter respect for books and learning that no doubt is getting quite rare these days.

So there I was, compulsively reading Kivi, Canth, Jotuni, Kauppis-Heikki, Aho, Lehtonen, Leinonen and many others: an 8 year old boy from a very sheltered home background - I surely couldn't understand anything I was reading about. What could it have been about? It was long ago, I have changed and can now hardly remember what I was searching for, but I do remember that the experience really was magical, strange, compulsive - I had found a gate and gone through it and have since never returned, or glanced back.

For that first burst I have no real explanation - simultaneously I did go for conventional children's literature which I could genuinely understand and enjoy, but I did enjoy also those other books at home, having clear preferences and favourites among them, though I certainly couldn't have understood much of those serious adult motivations and complexities of language and meaning. Since that long bygone time reading has been an integral part of my life, a very central part. By my twenties I averaged I think about a book per day. I switched to English around my 19th birthday, first basically for the wider selection, then for the glories of English literary tradition.

Helsinki City Library, University Library and Student Library were paradises for me, I remember feeling drunk at the mere sight of the endless, dusty shelves of the Student Library Book Storage. Great flames in deep darkness were those places for me during that bleak time. Even these days I think I read on average about a couple of books per week navigating still regularly back to those self-same beacons.

Themes have changed though - escape gave gradually way to intellectual search which in turn has been much replaced by more independent and more detached reflection. I'm now not able to read badly written fiction or clumsily thought out, shallow factual studies. Fiction and history are the main interests, I have overcome my snobbish (History Department) disdain of biography (if well written and thought). I can still enjoy good thrillers (say Barbara Vine) or thoughtful science fiction (in many ways a more politically and socially relevant genre than mainstream fiction that has largely lost its intellectual self-confidence and scope in the postmodern era), but altogether the subject matter is more serious and fiction is now in a distinct minority (poetry is something separate again, intensely meaningful but in some sense hardly literature for me, I have a very narrow selection of poems and poets that I return to again and again).

Writing this I notice that I find it very hard to describe the actual, concrete meaning of books to me, the actual texture of the feeling of reading, the rush - the polyphony of voices, of angles, the added scope, the limitless complexities of language, meaning and experience... In some sense all texts are speculative fiction, whether they are fiction or not, just as in some sense our lives are a speculation, a gamble - we are provisional and shifting, never fixed and permanent. We see myriad possibilities but no absolute solutions. So I read sceptically and critically but with an open mind and suspended judgement, coming only to provisional conclusions, trying to take in all possibilities, all meanings. As impossible as it is.

In many respects reading has been my true occupation all these years: I have kept endlessly travelling through strange landscapes while supporting myself by in comparison trivial occupations. At first it was a panicky escape, but lucky in direction (at a time when luck seemed to be in very short supply). Though not to paint any overly rosy image: for long, immensely painful years there was no reconciliation between mind and body, between intelligence and experience, I was immature, uneven, only partially a real person.

I have changed much since, for the better, being now more settled, intellectually more self-confident (though remaining an abysmally poor writer as always), pursuing now the origin and course of love, and not fundamentally meaningless intellectual abstractions. But to this day I have remained throughly addicted, throughly hooked, still spending long hours somewhere else, with this glorious dialogue and two-way interpretation that is reading. I am now in much less of a hurry and much more inclined to draw more permanent conclusions, thus narrowing the scope - it is not possible ever to reach any real certainty, so we have to settle with what limited understandings we can have in this world.

Writers like George Eliot and E.M.Forster have become the lodestars: I keep trying to connect, to reconcile, to comprehend our experience in a liberal, open-ended fashion, avoiding absolutes and unsupported certainties. It has been a strange pilgrimage through a rapidly passing civilization - but with such excellent, incomparably grand company. I can't imagine how it would be without this added scope, without these long views.

Friday, November 02, 2007

That madcap Lord Mayor of London

The last 18 months have been an education. For the first time in life to lose a truly close person without any regard to any personal wishes on the matter was an admirably clear lesson of the limits of this world. Then to have welcomed a new person here, utterly vulnerable, without any real guarantees whatsoever of being able to protect his way has been a logical continuation of that selfsame lesson. This is what we have here, at maximum, and these things, these people, are what we will lose, one way or the other. Much of our human activity is designed to enable us to forget this state of affairs. But it is the wildest, unsafest ride imaginable and you have to be stubbornly narrow indeed to remain unaware of this. The terms are brutally harsh but in this brief span there is admittedly some tragic grandeur - and also moments of pure exhilaration in not having any safety nets available: a strange journey through the wildness.