Friday, September 11, 2015

The ‘Childish’ Urge To Understand Everything

The Literary Life

Latest Readings by Clive James: Michael Dirda writes: “In 30 brief essays James goes on to tell us — in his most digressive, conversational manner — about the books he’s discovered or returned to quite probably for the last time. The list includes Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin nautical adventures, the ‘magisterial’ novels of Olivia Manning, Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy, numerous historical and biographical books about World War II, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Philip Larkin, Hollywood memoirs such as Steven Bach’s ‘Final Cut’ and, not least, Katharine Graham’s ‘Personal History.’ In general, James finds himself drawn to works that try to capture the obsessions and sweep of the 20th century.”
Photo Credit & Source: WashPost

An article, by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post looks at the reading habits of Clive James, a man of prodigious literary talents who desires to keep reading, learning and acquiring answers. This inclination is itself considered more remarkable when one understands that in the last few years, James has been living with a host of illnesses, including leukemia, emphysema and kidney failure. James was once a heavy smoker, which has now taken its toll on his body. Yet, despite such physiological deterioration, his desire for understanding and knowledge continues unabated. As long as the mind is alive, there is every reason to continue.

In “Clive James’s ‘Last Readings’ review: A critic’s final homage to literature, life” (September 2, 2015), Dirda writes about the Aussie turned Brit, who has been residing in England since 1962, and from where he has earned his reputation:
Clive James is a phenomenon, our most dazzling showman of letters. As a young critic in England in the 1970s, James made his name by reviewing television dramas and sitcoms, then took up broadcasting. At his televisual peak, he wrote and narrated an eight-part BBC series — later a book — called “Fame in the 20th Century.” His witty account of his Australian childhood, “Unreliable Memoirs,” is by now a minor classic, reprinted scores of times. As a poet, James has produced light verse and moving, late-life reflections on mortality, although he may always be best known for that beloved paean to schadenfreude, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” Eight years ago, Norton published “Cultural Amnesia,” a monumental collection of his biographical/critical essays about 110 key figures in modern art, literature, politics and history. More recently, James has translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” an impressive achievement even for a man who can read six foreign languages, including Russian and Japanese.
Alas, just as this versatile literary journalist entered his 70s, his health began to break down. Besides the usual complaints of old age — prostate trouble, cataracts — he was diagnosed with emphysema, kidney failure and terminal leukemia. Leaving London behind, James bought a house in Cambridge to be near his family and the people to whom he dedicates “Latest Readings ”: “my doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.” Now 75, Clive James writes as a man who expects to die at any moment.
Still, as he says, “if you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” Despite shelves full of books at home, James confesses that over the past couple of years he has made weekly visits to Hugh’s Bookstall in the Cambridge Market Square. Madness, he admits, “but the madness was divine. Even if I already had the book, he might have a handier edition; and often they were titles that I had once owned but lost along the way; and most often of all they were books that I had never owned before but now realized I ought to possess.” As he explains, “the childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.”
What James continues to do is what I want to do. Such childish urges to which he admits are my urges for knowledge. It is common to persons who have a particular cast of mind, which remains uncertain in many areas, except in the idea that the best way to achieve a comfortable degree of certainty is to keep searching and accumulating facts (while building knowledge) until a sufficient level of confidence is reached. (Is not certainty the end of the matter?) This level varies from person to person, reflecting a personality trait. Some arrive at conclusions (and decisions) easier than others, suggesting someone who is decisive.

Yet, decisive does not always translate to the best decision, just the quickest ones. People who read a lot tend to be not only more thoughtfully decisive about important things, chiefly because they have more knowledge on which to draw, but can also make decisions with better long-term results. Believe it not, reading literature, notably the classics that transcend time, can help in this area.  This is one of those things that requires personal attention.

So, try it for a few years and see what I mean; once you have made reading a habit, and a pleasurable one, it will change your thinking, your life. There is pleasure in gaining knowledge and seeing yourself grow as a person. It sounds corny, but it is true.

A clarification is in order. Better in this case relates not so much to economic or professional attainment and acquisition, but more to personal happiness and peace of mind. These are the kind of decisions that you can later look back and say, “This was a good decision: I have no regrets and would do it the same way all over again.”

For more, go to [WashPost]

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