Friday, December 08, 2006

Beyond the Compass

I'm not as good as I'd like to be at returning books, which I suppose is how I'm chastised for letting other people borrow mine and not return them.

I've been dabbling lately in a borrowed book. I wrote a note to myself in the front of the book, to be opened after I had crossed a sea of time: "This is JMM's book, and you are a dip if you don't return it to her!"

The book itself is like a chatty blog from an old friend, an e-mail pecked out on a manual typewriter. The news events it names are still crisp and bright, and the writer's rumination as he wanders from one topic to another are still as enchanting as watching a grandfather search from pocket to pocket to find where he left his glasses.

He covers the dangers of accumulation--of not returning books to friends: "A home is like a reservoir equipped with a gate valve," he writes. "The valve permits influx but prevents outflow. . . . Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in."

I can't say what made me want to read this book right now. I have been carrying it with me for many years--ever since JMM pressed it on me, telling me she knew I'd enjoy it. I cannot tell you when that was, but I'd be surprised if it was much after I left high school in 1982. It could have been well before that. I trusted JMM's taste when she said I'd enjoy the book; she knows how my mind works. And I have not ignored the book since then. But each book finds its time, and each time I picked this up and looked at it, I knew it wasn't time yet. Each time I have read a different book instead.

So this little bundle of essays comes to me from a great distance, measured not just in miles but in the slow transitions of a lifetime. The book I am reading was first published in 1962. When JMM handed it to me--when I penciled my note in the front--it was already not new; its thoughts were older than we were. But its age has doubled while I've kept the book, and then some.

More telling, my age has more than doubled in the meantime. The kid who wrote that note on the flyleaf was a stripling, a high-school wiseass who didn't know the note he was writing would be read by someone old enough to be his father.

And I can tell you I would have read the book differently back then.

I've been more places now, for one thing. The author writes about geographic details from the East Coast that would have been names on a map to me then; today they are neighborhoods I've been to.

He tells a story of sitting up winter days at his farm waiting to get a shot at a fox who has been raiding his henhouse. I could tell you stories of sitting up winter nights at my sister's house, reading to my niece a book written by the same guy, of the comic struggles of a fox father as he calculates how to feed his family by sneaking into henhouses, under constant threat from a watchful farmer with a gun.

The sojourner tells how he went up to Maine, to the Fryeburg Fair, to enjoy the cattle auction, and was almost tempted to buy a whiteface heifer. When JMM handed me the book, I had never been to a county fair, never bought anything at auction. (I've still never been to Maine.)

But these dispatches across space and time come to me as if they were written yesterday by a neighbor up the road. I am closer to the writer's age today than when I got the book; I think I understand the musings of the 55-year-old better today than I would have when I was 20. Even as I have been hiking further away from the date the book was printed, I have been climbing closer to the ridge in life where it was written.

I can tell you, though, that JMM was right, as I knew she would be. I'm having a great time mapping his thoughts, recognizing the turns in some trails, delighting at being taken into some nooks I hadn't explored before.

I could go on, but that's probably enough for now. I'll close with one final, mostly unrelated thought. The writer, an American of letters, quotes another American--a statesman--who himself found in the words of a third--a jurist, who had died well before either of these guys--an idea worth note:

"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

In this little sheaf of essays, those words are used in a description of a dog's character, but I have no doubt the writer intended them to go further.


Andrew Shields said...


I'll not write again
things a young man
thinks, not the words
of that feeling.

There is no world
except felt, no
one there but
must be here also.

If that time was
echoing, a vindication
apparent, if flesh
and bone coincided --

let the body be.
See faces float
over the horizon let
the day end.

Robert Creeley (1926-March 30, 2005)

Anonymous said...

hello uncle jumbo

form the best neice EVER aka #3