The moment when a new book is begun it is a moment that vibrates, as potential energy (a writer’s wisdom distilled into a completed work, printed, bound, placed in your hands), converted slowly into kinetic energy (second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day) with each turn of the page.
Sacred moments like these deserve recognition. And since there is less time with every passing moment to fill the gaps in my reading, I’ve made it a point to choose with great care what to read. This selection process, increasing in importance since marriage, and still more necessary with a daughter due in a few months, has become an official holiday for me: New Book Day. (Superior, more clever title pending.)
With a stack of books in my arms, I search around the house for my wife: she is at the computer reading the news, or brushing her hair over the sink, or buttering a slice of toast in the kitchen. I ask her if she knows what day it is. At first, she would rack her brain, trying to figure out if she forgot a birthday or an event from our courtship marked for remembrance. But by now, she knows; she rolls her eyes and exclaims, “New Book Day!” with all the mock enthusiasm she can muster. She’s not as much of a reader as I am, but I don’t hold it against her. After all, reading is just one way to get your kicks, to live a full life, to suck the marrow of human experience.
The New Book Day ceremony takes place as soon after finishing the last book as possible, and proceeds as follows:
- Pour a tall glass of wine (either white, very cold and very dry, or a mellow red) or water or hot tea or coffee and proceed to where your books are located.
- Grab 5, 6, 10, 15, 27, however many (unread) titles off your shelves or off the pile of books in the corner of your living room as you feel you might want to devote yourself to.
- Read a bit of each until you find the one you cannot put down.
- Retreat to your reading spot and read, remembering at all times that the thing you hold in your hands is a great gift: you are Prometheus, and you are about to discover a beautiful fire that will make your heart more full (or less empty, depending on your perspective) than it already is, than you ever thought, hoped, dreamed it could be.
For step #2, I usually have some vague expectation of what I will get out of each book; usually, as in the cases of Ulysses and War and Peace, these expectations turn out to be, in retrospect, completely incorrect, naïve and even a bit arrogant. But it is a literary diet that I am constructing, and I try to find a book that I believe will give me what I need at that given moment of my life. (Wouldn’t it be nice to know, without a doubt, what one really needs, at least once?)
I keep track of the date on which I finish each book; or, as it were, the date of each New Book Day. Looking through the reading list for 2011, I try to spot the book whose Page 1 sparked the most excitement. On the 21st of July, I finished Volume III of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. That night (my wife and I were living as expats in Buenos Aires then) I started Ulysses.
I’d passed over James Joyce’s infamous masterpiece on many a New Book Day, intimidated no doubt by the book’s reputation. Many people read (the many) essays written about Ulysses before reading the actual book; I am certain that many people also never read it from beginning to end. Maybe it’s because Joyce veterans instruct newbies to start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Dubliners. For a while I figured this would be the prudent course of action, but soon I got to thinking it was probably just procrastination, avoiding the inevitability of failing to understand this monster of 20th century art. But that night, reading the first sentence (“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed” – just typing that quotation gets me giddy, tickles the laughing muscles of my face) for probably the fiftieth time, I knew I would never be prepared for my first reading of Ulysses.
I dove right in that night, stayed up way too late considering I had to wake up for work early the following morning, but I felt such a thrill speeding through that first chapter, and then I got to the second chapter, where Stephen Dedalus declares that God is “a shout in the street,” and I had to stop and digest what I’d read. Joyce, as master stylist, blew me away. I laughed at lines he might have meant for me to laugh at, I laughed in amazement at points, thinking, Wow, this is really good. All the while, things flew over my head, but I loved every word, known or unknown (my vocabulary probably expanded by a good 5% in those two weeks), because my heart understood then how lucky we are as sentient, soul-possessing creatures to be able to communicate in this profound manner with people we will never physically meet, the majority of them gone from the world, as I and everyone else will be some day.
I saved the final section, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, for a bus ride home from the office one night. Internally I prayed for traffic to be slow so I would have ample time to finish the chapter in one sitting, without interruption. Luckily, there is always traffic in Buenos Aires at six in the evening. I reached the “…yes I said yes I will Yes,” with a lump in my throat, heart throbbing, and her last “Yes” remains the only word that my mind can find to describe what Ulysses made me feel for three weeks, that still permeates tiny moments of my everyday life. In this sense, a great work of art is like a second soul that attaches itself to you as you engage mentally and spiritually with the work, and which, by the end, has detached a piece of itself to leave as a gift, especially for you.
I love books; I love literature; I love that stories are concomitantly made up and truer (when they are pulled off perfectly) than anything that has ever happened. And aside from the individual love between a reader and a certain book–which by psychic extension is love between a writer and each of his readers–I find, residing at the core of any “good” work of art, the larger, unconditional love of humanity for humanity, and for all that the universe entails. And it is love, because if there were no love to begin with, there’d be no art. And yet, look at all the books.
Shouldn’t we celebrate every occasion on which we decide to discover that again?