Sunday, July 20, 2008

Location, Location, Location

Vinegar and Baking Soda.

In reading, as in real estate, location is everything. Certainly a good book has power anywhere, but every book has a place where reading it is more intellectually or emotionally charged. These nodes hook your brain and your heart to the book in a more vital way. Reading ceases to be a merely intellectual pursuit--not that it should be in the normal way, but it too often is--and becomes an emotional one as well. Thus, it becomes a true experience, because it incorporates emotion and rational thought, the vinegar and baking soda that make our lives fizz.

It is all well and good to read, say, Tom Clancy's Hunt for the Red October (which currently languishes on my shelf, unread) on a bus or subway, or curled up in bed, but it is another thing entirely, I should imagine, to read it in the blue light of an actual submarine cabin. That's not an experience many people are likely to have, but do you see what I'm getting at? When you read a book somewhere that figures in the story itself somehow, is evocative of the book in some way, or was important to the author; or alternatively in non-fiction, reading a book about a certain battle on the battlefield; reading a book about American democracy while sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; it becomes, in a real or imaginary way, closer to you.

Anne Fadiman, writing in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, tells of how she read the journals of a western explorer in the Lewis and Clarke mold while sitting on the shore of the very river being described in the book. She also tells of an author who read a book about Hannibal and the Punic Wars while in a misty Italian battlefield. Reading A. A. Milne on a country bench somewhere in the forest that became, in his stories, the Hundred Acre Wood, reading Shakespeare while being punted down the Avon, reading Gilgamesh in Iraq, Exodus in Egypt and Israel, or Acts of the Apostles in Athens or Philippi or Corinth or Rome; you can imagine the significance of achieving that.

A problem comes, however, regarding two areas of my literary canon: religious books, and science-fiction/fantasy. These three categories in fact probably make up most of my reading itinerary. Christian books such as the Screwtape Letters, The Reason for God, and in fact the Bible itself are by their nature otherworldly. Christianity does not dwell on this world; it does not dwell in this world. God is not of the world, and Christians are called not to be either. But the world in the Bible is more often the enemies of God, or the sinful nature, which can be described as the necrotic crusty nacre of unspeakable, filthy evil and sin; the antithesis of everything God created the world to be. Since we, and the world, are totally but not utterly depraved--there is no sinless aspect of our lives and world, but nothing is completely sinful. So, there remains in this world a part; a 2-d image of a 3-d event, a black-and-white photograph; of the glory and majesty God created in Man and in this world. But that doesn't answer the question: are there places where the Bible, to take one example, can be read so that it has the power of location?

The Bible is, of course, a special case. The only perfect book in the world; the only one inspired by God. It is always equally powerful to read the Bible, and because it is such a diverse, world-spanning narrative, no place can really be defined by it. However, I think it would have great meaning to read the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, of his crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and etc. The question must arise, though: Where do you read a perfect book? There are two possible answers: everywhere and heaven.

The Screwtape Letters? The theme of anxiety about World War II is something frequently mentioned in the book. It's such a perfectly crafted work that, although it does not have an explicit plot, the tension still builds towards the end as the War looms. A bench at a WWII memorial perhaps? An Anglican confessional? I guess that's one we'll have to discover.

Science-fiction and fantasy may be the only exceptions to the rule. It's not possible to read Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire in Admiral Thrawn's low-lit art-filled command sanctum--although I swear it's out there somewhere. It's not possible to read William Shatner's Star Trek Academy Collision Course in 23rd Century San Francisco, and so on. Perhaps because so much of reading this kind of book is intertwined with pure imagination in that it makes use of far less real-life material--that rests, if you will, already in image files in our brains--than, say, a John Grisham book. Compare the following tidbits: "He was wide awake when the engine was throttled down and the boat moved close to the bank. There were voices, then a gentle bump as they docked at the trading post. Nate slowly removed himself from the hammock and returned to the bench, where he sat" This is form John Grisham's excellent book, The Testament. Engines, boats, banks, trading posts, hammocks, voices, bumps, and benches are all things we are at leasy vaguely familiar with. Nate is a familiar name. I would say this book's "node" would be drifting slowly down the Amazon in a river boat. Compare it to this: "Atuarre watched anxiously as she and a few chosen helpers in the big tier-level cargo lock almost threw milling prisoners into the tunnel tube, where they thrashes like swimmers, moving and helping one another move towards the junction station." That example may be too effective; it seems incomprehensible. To clarify, I should say that Atuarre is helping wrongly-held prisoners escape through a no-gravity tube, thus the throwing and thrashing like swimmers. But still, many of these words are no doubt unfamiliar to you. I, who have read a chunk of science fiction in my day, understand it better, but part of the charm of science fiction is that in many ways it leaves more to the reader and author both, rather than, say, the laws of physics or reality which usually set unflicnhing guidelines. In that sense, sci-fi is both harder and easier to write and read than a Nora Roberts or John Grisham book. But you can see my point: there aren't many science fiction books with "nodes"; most of them don't even happen in this universe.

The book and place don't even necessarily have to be related to get the electric connection Anne Fadiman writes about. One of my favorite reading memories took place on the shores of a glassy northern lake, sitting on a hugely gnarled tree root indian-style. Dusk was falling, and I had to bend close to the book to see what I was reading. The book? It was a P.G. Wodehouse book featuring Jeeves and Wooster. How seemingly alien to the quiet dusky stillness of that lake reflecting the last rays of the sun into the tree-lined campsite. And yet somehow, it was a great reading moment. It was a vinegar and baking soda moment.