This night I sat in an armchair near a book shelf under a single dim yellow light. All the edges of the room were in shadow and Lisitsa was playing Chopin’s nocturnes. I meant to work on my laptop but couldn’t. I needed the old things, nostalgic for times when I dissipated the hours away. Once there was a boy in a plasterboard box, in a brick house, under a tiled roof in a yard on an endless plain of tiled roofs, dreaming he was on the other side of the world, some time ago, in a room tricked out in the oriental fashion, an English gentlemen opium fiend dreaming of a man who made himself emperor of half the world and more, from the Middle Kingdom to the West, who in Xanadu, a stately pleasure dome did decree. A faulty product of imperial eugenics at the far end of a dead empire dreaming he would awake anywhere but here in a plasterboard room among plasterboard rooms.
There was no need to get up. Beside me was To The Light House and 3 quarto books of Ukiyo-e. Either easily sufficient to attain aesthetic state, forgetful of time. Too tired to read, I picked up the first of the books of prints. It was the early period, dominated by yellow, orange and black inks. A street light glimmered in the corner of my eye through a small gap in the blinds. I stood and made sure all the blinds overlapped and returned to the chair. I opened the cover but, as the sleeve was upside down I opened to the inside cover at the back of the book. It was papered over with a reprint of an ancient and highly detailed map, dense with characters I couldn’t understand, villages and towns and a wide river winding through it. It was enough to let you see that once, someone, many people, in that time, might have walked from this place to that. Why? Why are they out walking? Who was it, that night, walking alone, passing this street corner on their way to the river?
To answer these questions you have to have read. Everyone you have ever read writes again for you in answer to such questions. In the distance he hears the sound of women beating the fulling block and remembers picking peaches from the courtyard tree. One of the people depicted in these prints perhaps, going to meet another, but what thoughts? What problems drove them? What politeness constrained them? What politics governed them? What thought crossed their mind as this foot came after that and they rounded the corner? What is that tucked in their sleeve?
“In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.
“As this wave from memories flows in the city soaks up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
One thing leads to another. This segment from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has influenced me more than any other piece of reading, ever since I first read it as a boy in a plasterboard room. Instead of a map on the inside cover of a book of prints it might have been the Bokhara rug, or the wood of the floor, or the plastic of the light switch, or the scratches in a breakfast bowl. One thing leads to another and when you have read enough, you can begin reading anything.
A moment in literature I continually return to when writing about writing, or about thinking, or entering some discussion about ways of seeing things, is in Soseki’s Kusamakura. I mentioned Soseki to a priest in Japan once and he rolled his eyes because everyone must study him in school. Not knowing this before reading Soseki I was free to appreciate Soseki on his merits. A painter visiting a quiet hotel in a remote village goes out looking at scenes to paint but never paints. For some time it seems he’s merely seeking the right location but as his stay proceeds he never puts brush to canvas. For years he had practised painting constantly, devotedly, until he felt he had mastered all the techniques of the art, composition, colour, line, form, mastered it enough to call himself an artist. Having mastered painting he no longer needed to paint. Anything he painted would perish in time, just as he would. All things change. Our works may outlive us for a while but they are as doomed as we are. We exist only for a while so, because he was now able to to see the world as a painter sees it, viewing every moment as a potential painting, there was no need to paint a thing.
There are many easy answers to the question. In books there are thoughts and lives from around the world, from thousands of years ago and in reading them you learn as much about yourself as about them. One thing leads to another. One day I picked Shen Fu from a shelf in Glebe and on the long train home found I had more in common with a man from Jiangsu in Qing dynasty South China than my neighbour. But it’s this other answer I like most.
So, why read? To make a book of all the world.