Friday, April 3, 2009

A Tale of Transcendance

There once was an apartment full of books that were stacked against every wall, and piled upon an almost uncountable number of shelves. Through high school, and then university, this collection had migrated from place to place, inside of moving vans, or carted by hand in milk crates tied to the back of a bicycle during an endless series of trips from an old home to a new home. As time progressed the collection grew, and at first paid for out of pocket, from the wages of a part-time job, or from the bounty of book certificates so thoughtfully given on Christmas mornings. The larger commercial bookstores were regular recipients of this largesse, though in terms of number of vulmes bought, the myriad used bookstores that dotted the city received far more custom. Eventually, through the shrewd decision to review books and interview authors at the university radio station, the books not longer required anything so crude as cash to be acquired. All that was needed was a call to the publishing house in question, and a copy would promptly be sent on its way.

As this collection grew, the thought was that it would be an investment, something for the future. As with all such investments, like the entertainment centers and extended cable packages that would pay themselves off by reducing the need to go out every other night, a true accounting of the downsides against the upsides was never a part of the deal. Someday. Somehow. That was all that was needed to feed a reasonable doubt, or half reasoned expectation, into the equation. They were an investment of some sort, for some sort of thing in the future, whenever that would be.

There was always this feeling of peace that would descend when browsing through the collection. Wall to wall, shelf to shelf. Looking, touching, moving, adjusting. These books were not books but objets d’art. Something to contemplated, remembered, and admired. As at home, one foot through the door of a bookstore was always a way of telling others to make themselves busy for a while.

Eventually need, in the form of a shift of residence from one continent to another, necessitated a decision to cast away all that was superfluous and truly unnecessary. Books that were paperback, decrepit, or banal migrated into a series of bags, destined either for donation or destruction. The only rule was that books that had been worked with would be kept, so the thousand odd titles bearing the signature and comments of writers that had been met and interviewed were kept safely to the side. As for the rest, it was easy to winnow out the excess chaff, easier than expected. Important anthologies would be kept for their impressive size, and literary breadth. The great books, at least those in hard cover form, also received a pass. Anything else that was at least in passable condition was donated to the local library. Over a two week period, a library in one of the poorest parts of town received two thousand or so books, enough to fill more than a few of the empty shelves in the building. Several hundred more books found there way into either the “free stuff” boxes in the downstairs lobby, or the giant trash bins out back.The remainder were locked up in a storage shed, for retrieval some indeterminate time in the future.

As a child, and as a teen, stories always made sense. Like taking a breath, or downing a glass of water, slipping into the world of a story was a natural and necessary part of life. Later, after university, marriage, and the birth of a child, this sense of necessity was thrust aside by the real necessities of life. The seduction of reality, true reality set in, and the love of stories seemed to fade. There was a time when this passion for books seemed silly. There was an epiphany of sorts. Stories were stories, just like shows on television, no more, no less. Yes getting lost, escaping, was bliss, But none of it was real. Not like the reality of newspapers and magazines. Online, on air, and in print. Editorials, op-eds, features, and exposes would reveal the world as it was, and as it is. For a time this became intoxicating, and absorbing. The scissors came out to clip the funny, the strange, and the profound. Books, meaning fiction, were shunted aside in favour of the real world. For wass it not only reality that really mattered?

Newspapers, in print and online, blogs, magazines, and non-fiction books are all very seductive. They promise not only knowledge, but a sense of mastery over the times and events of the day. Fiction, on the other hand, is so very temporal in nature, like a flower that blooms only for an hour, leaving little in its wake but a discarded husk, never to be touched again. So it would seem to make sense that to leave fiction behind, like all other childhood things, was a necessary part of entering fully into the adult world.

But things, as they say, are not always what they seem.

Michael Connolly said it quite nicely in The Book of Lost Things:

David’s mother once said that his father used to read a lot of books, but had fallen out of the habit of losing himself in stories. Now he preferred his newspapers with their long columns of print, each letter painstakingly laid out by hand to create something which would lose its relevance almost as soon as it appeared on the news stands, the news within already old and dying by the time it was read, quickly overtaken by events in the world beyond.

The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David’s mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only so long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions, all shouty and insistent, while stories - real stories, proper made-up stories - were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were as insubstantial as smoke, as long lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like the weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales. (9 - 10)

Over several years of intense news reading, perusal of essays, reading transcripts of debates, going through historical texts, and keeping up to date and up to the moment on the state of affairs at home and abroad, a certain sense of foreboding began to set. All that talk, opinion, and debate, what joy or purpose did it really bring to life? Gripping a thousand page novel brought with it the certain anticipation of hours of happy reading, of joyous escape, whereas picking up the newspaper in the morning had become more a ritual of grim determination. One did not read the newspaper to escape, or to be enlightened. Usually print space was devoted to stories of terrible events, of suffering, of disaster waiting just around the corner. Page after page, section after section, the stories reveled in destruction, of people and of places, and of the shortcomings and utter base humanity of so many people. In the words of those both wise and articulate, it was was always the same shit, different pile.

A recent trip through the box of clippings found that what once seemed funny, strange, and profound, now lay limp in the hand. Those clippings of articles, blurbs, and essays now only seemed like so much useless paper. There was no context, no sustaining narrative to bind them together or to anything in particular. The context of whatever zeitgeist they had once been anchored in had long since passed, and with it any sense of relevancy or connection to the modern day. Passing them on to a child or friend would be no more significant, and far less useful, than passing them a tissue to wipe their nose with. They would surely give a look, saying “what’s this?” not with a smile or the sound of anticipation in their voice, but with a sense of annoyance for time wasted on nonsense.

It was then that the true value of stories became more apparent. Stories, mere abstract concepts, transcend the mundane and repetitive scripts of daily life. While comfort and wealth in this world have come as a result of advances in material technology, the very bedrock of modern civilization is a series of abstract concepts. Law, justice, fairness, time, organization, effectiveness, productivity, love, faith, hope, redemption, are all essential parts modern civilization. None can be touched, seen, smelled, heard or tasted. They can only be known, understood, and acted upon. Knowledge of them informs an understanding of the nature of the world, and the preferred way to live life.

Sitting on the porch and watching people pass by is one way to live a life. Chances are the same people will pass in the same directions at the same time for many years, with new members taking the place of those whose time has come. Observing the events as they unfold, sitting out on a front porch, is much the same as picking up that daily newspaper, and seeing what is going on. It does not require any of the higher functions, nor engage any of the real potential of any human being to do so. It is, in effect, no different than the act of a humble groundhog, sticking it’s head out of it’s underground warren to see what there is to be seen, before holing up in the cozy warmth of the earth once again.

But with stories, real made-up, properly constructed stories, the essential questions can be dealt with. Not the whats, the whens, the hows, the wheres, and the whos, but the whys. It’s the whys that stories really get at.

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