Monday, September 29, 2014

The Great Conversation

I listened in on a conversation the other day – a conversation between books. Mortimer Adler, the guide and patron saint of my reading project (and the pitching coach of my fantasy baseball team), sometimes spoke of the classic works of literature as The Great Conversation. Across time and space, brilliant writers explore the Great Ideas of truth, justice, being, number, cause and chance, government and democracy, form and substance, will and memory, and many others including, yes, the idea of ideas. The best authors respond to ideas expressed before them, add to them or clarify them, and influence thinkers who come after them.

The metaphor of a conversation makes a lot of sense to me; I experience a conversation between books every day. I discovered a few years ago that I read more and assimilate more of what I read if I keep multiple books going at a time. From the beginning of my current ten-year plan, I’ve always planned to read two books at once, and I read a few pages from each one every day. You can see this parallel nature of the plan in any of the calendars tabbed at the top of this page. In general, one of the books (the ones in the left column on my schedules) is heavier, both in terms of content and of physical weight. These works – typically philosophy, history, and theology – I usually read fairly slowly, sitting down, and taking notes. The books in the right column, on the other hand, I take with me on walks. They’re the books I could read for hours on end (and sometimes do).

In just the last few days, I’ve actually started enjoying portions of three books most days. Getting to my new job involves almost an hour of driving each day, something I wasn’t used to. I listened to music on the drive during the first few weeks in the new situation. But earlier this month, I downloaded an audio version of Phantastes from and listened to about half of it. This pleasurable experience made the commuting time go by quite quickly. So once I finished the MacDonald book, I thought I’d get another audiobook for the car. But what to choose? Everything on the plan for the rest of the year is copyrighted, and I was hoping for something free. So I looked at next year’s plan and picked Tristram Shandy. One, two, three – three books at once. Friday, as geeky as it sounds, I listened to Tristram on the way to work, took Mann’s Magic Mountain on my daily walk, and read in Durant’s The Renaissance during lunch. (Yes, I did some work in between all that reading!)

And that's where the conversation comes in. The conversation I horned in on last Friday had to do with time. Mann has a lot to say about time from the very beginning of The Magic Mountain, especially the difference between perceived time and objective time. Protagonist Hans Castorp, for instance, experiences time flowing quickly when his day is scheduled, plodding slowly as he waits the seven minutes for his thermometer to register his fever, and disappearing altogether as each day, each week, each month repeats the same patterns over and over. Well, during my walk on Friday, I read Mann’s narrator moving this distinction to a literary level. There’s a difference, he points out, between the real-world time taken reading a narrative and the fictional-world time within the narrative. A few seconds of narrative time might take several minutes to read; the split second of action and thought under the train at the end of Anna Karenina came to my mind as an example. On the other hand, years sometimes rush by in a matter of a few words at the beginning of a chapter.

This distinction between reading time and narrative time stayed in the back of my mind all day after that walk, even until I got in the car at the end of the day and turned Tristram back on. And then it happened. The conversation was so stunning, so vivid, so direct, I could practically see Laurence Sterne and Thomas Mann sitting together at a table talking it over. As soon as the recording started, I heard first-person narrator Tristram apologize for taking so long getting to his birth! He’s announced the day, but before he delivers the details, he has to tell the reader about the midwife and the parson who come to the house, about his parent’s arguments about the midwife, about the parson’s horse, about his mother’s desire to have her lying-in in London, about his father’s theory of names (the Shandian System), and so on.

Having read the book before, I know I have a good forty chapters to go before I experience any narration of Tristram’s actual coming into the world. Today, for instance, I heard a digression about the Jesuits’ theory of baptism before birth, a digression about Uncle Toby, a digression on forms of argument, and even a digression on digressions. And it will go on. Several days will lapse before I hear the end of a sentence uttered by Uncle Toby that I heard begin today. Several weeks will lapse before I witness Tristram’s unlucky arrival.

The reader will remember that I was discussing a conversation and an apology. When I heard his apology, I laughed out loud. It wasn’t the first time I laughed out loud while listening to this audiobook. I’ve done it several times. Now, you may not understand the significance of the statement or the reason for my repeating it unless you know that I usually don’t laugh out loud. I have a well developed sense of humor, and I laugh. Sometimes I laugh hard. I have convulsions as good as anyone’s. I just normally don’t make any sound. Sometimes my family wonder why I’m not enjoying myself watching a funny movie. “Don’t you like it?” they ask. “Of course, I like it. It’s funny.” “Then why aren’t you laughing?” “I am laughing.” “I didn’t hear you laughing.” “Ah, but did you see me laughing?” “No your chair was turned around.” I often sit on a swivel chair when we watch movies together. Or I did. Now that we’ve moved, I have a recliner.

Speaking of the time it takes to read a narrative, might I interrupt my pleasant relaxation on the recliner and stop my silent, merry shaking long enough to tell you that Magic Mountain is too long?

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