A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


I love books, and the older I get, the more widely I seem to read. I always have lots of books on the go at once. They fall into four categories: those I've been reading 'forever' and never finished (Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet); those I read quite ploddingly but do or will finish (Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani, Karen Armstrong's History of God, Hendrik van Loon's Story of Mankind); those I read quickly and find 'unputdownable' (The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Magus by John Fowles, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane); and those I'm constantly dipping into but rarely reading all the way through (often these are art, poetry or philosophy books, such as The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, A Year with Rilke and The Penguin Krishnamurti Reader). I think different books call for different ways of reading: some you want to take into yourself, to savour leisurely and meditate upon; others you want to devour in one or two evenings. I have no preference: I enjoy all kinds of books, and don't care how quickly or how slowly I read them.

Right now I'm reading Marc Chagall's My Life, a delightful, rather whimsical memoir by the great artist; the amazing, towering masterpiece of Proust's In Search of Lost Time; and The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor's posthumously-published account of his youthful walking adventures in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

On my waiting-to-be-read pile are the novels Stoner by John Williams and The Immoralist by André Gide (this a reread), The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol and Bashō's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

So I still have to complete War and Peace, but will do some day. I've read two-thirds. And I've just borrowed CH Sisson's wonderfully lucid translation of Dante, which is really exciting — so much more readable than other translations I've tried:

Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.

It is hard to say just what the forest was like,
How wild and rough it was, how overpowering;
Even to remember it makes me afraid.

So bitter it is, death itself is hardly more so;
Yet there was good there, and to make it clear
I will speak of other things that I perceived.

I cannot tell exactly how I got there,
I was so full of sleep at that point of my journey
When, somehow, I left the proper way . . .

We often find ourselves 'obscured in a great forest, bewildered' — but books can help point out the way.


Rubye Jack said...

I envy you your easiness with reading several books at once, giving some more attention than others but keeping with them all. For me, I have a mind that insists on only one book at a time because if I try to open more than one I find myself becoming too anxious. Probably some sort of neurotic control issue. :)

The Weaver of Grass said...

My reading goes in fits and starts, Robert. I adore Patrick Leigh Fermor and have read everything of his that I can get my hands on. I am a sucker for travel books, particularly now that I can't go abroad any more. Other than that, if I find an author I like then I read everything I can find of his/hers. Love Robert Macfarlane by the way and also Ronald Blythe and Roger Deakin - those three I pick up and put down at will. I especially love Deakin's Walnut Tree Farm - he was such an eccentric.

Susan Scheid said...

And one of the many wonderful things about books is that so often one leads you to several others. Not long ago, I read Simon Winder's Danubia--and he led me right back, once again, to Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. I'm not anything like as good as I should be about keeping at my reading (nor am I able to read more than one book at a time--articles and essays, yet, but not novels or longer works--wish I could!), but I am always reminded, when I slow down enough to sit quietly with a book, how absolutely wonderful it is to do that.

George said...

My reading habits are much the same as yours, Robert. Some books grab me by the throat and cannot be put down, some always beckon me for another read, some are to to picked over in search of the morsels of truth I suspect are hidden there. I'm also increasingly eclectic in my reading, though I generally prefer nonfiction to fiction. One thing is certain: All of the safe transits through the dark places in my life were made with insightful and supportive books at my side. Some people find guidance from other people in life; most of my guidance has come from books, and writers who I have never personally met are among the best friends I have had on this journey.

rosaria williams said...

Love to stumble on the same solitary walks you take, and talk about the books on our night tables...

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these comments.

Pat, I loved the first two books in Fermor's trilogy, but I found 'The Broken Road' not as compelling. Also I think I'm getting a little tired of his showy learning and extravagant sentences — very evident in 'Mani', which I'm struggling to finish, as it lacks the narrative drive of the Rhine-Danube trilogy. Sometimes he just bogs himself down in too-long paragraphs of obscure history and obsolete verbiage. I admit it's good he's keeping some of these archaic words alive, but to me he increasingly reads like something from another era.

Thanks, Susan, for rementioning that 'Danubia' book, which I must read — and, despite having supposedly been a German scholar at an earlier point in my life, I still haven't read Zweig!

And thanks, too, George, for your revealing message. I agree so much that certain writers who are intensely meaningful to us can seem our friends, though sometimes these writers in the flesh can turn out to be massively disappointing (as I know from my former publishing life). Better trust the tale not the teller, perhaps! It's quite true for me also that some books have been 'safe transits' through 'dark places'.

Hello, Rosaria, thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog. Hope you may continue reading, as there are always plenty of solitary walks and books round here!

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry, Rubye, missed you out — just to say, it's probably my low boredom threshold which makes me keep turning from one book to another...

Susan Scheid said...

George, if you feel inclined to try out Zweig, I'd say go for the autobiography, The World of Yesterday. The two novels I've tried so far aren't so compelling, though I'm enjoying Beware the Pity well enough.

Amanda said...

I look forward to reading the Fermor book. I've heard so much about his book on the Mani but have yet to read it.

What a wonderful book list. The Magus is at the top of mine, and I love all Don Miguel Ruiz's works.

Do you read Bruce Chatwin or Freya Stark?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Amanda — sorry for the delay in replying. I have read some of Chatwin, and would like to read Freya Stark.