Friday, 25 July 2008

Unfinished Books

I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
O'er a great wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows,
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!

- Robert Browning, "By the fire-side"

Peter Black's posting about books only started, never finished, causes me to reflect on my unachieved ambition to catch up on the great works of literature which I missed out on during my working years.

I didn't miss out completely. I read Ulysses through twice, the first time devouring it over the span of a week, aided by long train journeys and long nights in a hotel room while working on a contract in England. What drew me on was the fascination with the different language and styles with which Joyce plays in the book. Perhaps A-level English and other languages prepared me for this. "Ulysses" also cured me of any delusion that I, too, could become a great writer.

There were many others, mostly modern. Two come to mind: Nigel Balchin, because it is his centenary this year; and Don Marquis, whose birthday falls next week. More then, if I can remember.

Unfortunatly, when I found I had more time, I also found that my concentration was less fierce than it used to be. This can't be just old age; Gladstone in his later years would think nothing of reading a classical work in the original, and writing an extensive commentary on it.

Television must have something to do with it, and possibly the sheer weight of written material which passes in front of ones eyeballs. Though newspapers are less dense than they used to be, there are more journals out there, largely as a result of joining charities and societies. When programming, one had to wade through turgid systems specifications, which made reading a chore rather than a pleasure. Now there is the load of council papers, written in 21st-century pudder.

For the record, the unfinished books on my bedside table include "The Arabs" by Albert Hourani, "Collapse" (Jared Diamond) and the memoirs of Peter Walker and Don Shepherd. This is no reflection on the quality of writing (though Hourani can be hard going), more on my inability to keep my eyes open for more than ten minutes at the end of the day.

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