I have fallen in love with many a friend after seeing their bookshelves. Forget the eyes. The books that line the shelves of our homes, or lean in precarious piles on the floor, or crowd out our bedsides, are the windows to one’s soul. We see familiars we have at home, titles we’ve always meant to explore. We discover, always, something new. We see how they organize. Or don’t. We see the merging of a couple’s disparate and/or overlapping tastes and interests. I fantasize about a trip that took a lifetime, just visiting friends around the world and spending all my time reading their books. I fantasize boundless free time at home, to even get through my own.
I remember the moment of awareness that we have been granted a finite time span here. It struck me when I realized that there were favorite books I’d read that I simply might never have time to reread. Their memory became all the more precious, and intangible.
Here, I’ve pulled Reading & Writing by VS Naipaul from the shelf:
My father was a self-educated man who had made himself a journalist. He read in his own way. At this time he was in his early thirties, and still learning. He read many books at once, finishing none, looking not for the story or argument in any book but for the special qualities or character of the writer. That was where he found his pleasure, and he could savor writers only in little bursts.
In my fantasy of being a writer there had been no idea how I might actually go about writing a book. I suppose —I couldn’t be sure—that there was a vague notion in the fantasy that once I had done the first the others would follow.
I found it wasn’t like that. The material didn’t permit it. In those early days every new book meant facing the old blankness again and going back to the beginning. The later books came like the first, driven only by the wish to do a book, with an intuitive or innocent or desperate grasping at ideas and material without fully understanding where they might lead. Knowledge came with writing.
An echo of Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Naipaul also writes of the accidental bridge he crossed between writing fiction and nonfiction. How, through the process of researching historical archives and seeking out some sort of narrative for the unwritten histories of his Caribbean islands, he learned something else about his own writing. He came to define fiction as the “exploration of one’s immediate circumstances.” But ah, what riches emerge from the details that come from research. For him, it was digging into plantation records. For me, it comes with deciphering scientific papers and esoteric writings on birds or places. “Fiction,” Naipaul writes, “by itself would not have taken me to this larger comprehension.”