Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From One Line to Five Hundred

As much as I tried to make my reading list for the Third Decade shorter and lighter than the schedule for the Second, of course it ballooned almost out of control. Part of the problem is that I thought I’d be spending the horological abundance of the retired on this new project, when in fact I took on, for my last nine months of labor on this Earth, a job busier and more tiring than any I’ve had since I was a peppy whippersnapper. But many years ago, I learned to take at least an hour at lunch to forget about work and read a book, and I still do it. If I feel rushed to get through lunch these days, at least the reading has been good this fall.

Part of my bloated reading list for the Third Decade includes rereading my notes from ten years ago, and I was amazed to recall that I had taken only one line of notes about Will Durant’s Story of Civilization in 2007. This year I wrote over 500 lines of information I’d love to remember. His march through the annals of western history has become one of my favorite assignments each year, which is why I schedule it in the fall as a reward for some of the tougher reading of the earlier months.

Durant goes back and forth smoothly and logically between giant personalities (Mary Queen of Scots, for instance), political movements (e.g., the English Civil War), cultural descriptions (this year it was the morals and manners of France during the religious wars of the sixteenth century), and criticism of art and literature (Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, Velázquez, and Bernini). Of course his historical prose gets bogged down in a density of detail at times, but he rarely repeats himself and only occasionally explains things out of order: not bad for a monument of 6000+ pages. But every page presents something new, something striking, something to change the habitual perception of a reader doomed to live in his own era.

And Durant has a flair for witty observation. (I suspect that these moments actually come from the mind of his wife, Ariel, whom he eventually made co-author of the last few volumes.) In saying that people like the way Shakespeare says things as well as his stories, he quips, “Shakespeare’s audience came for his plumage as well as for his tale.” About the artist Domenichino, he says, “He . . . learned his art in Bologna and then sought the fauna and florins of Rome.”

That kind of educated pun is a lost art, I’m afraid. And of course, my notes are all dry lists of mere facts. But at least ten years from now, when I read my files from this first year of my third ten-year reading plan during Year 1 of the Fourth Decade, I’ll have plenty to remind me of the epic tale Will Durant sang for me in 2017.

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