… you would know with a book you love:
How nothing held your eyes
The way the words did, with archer-focus:
How each arrow heading toward you
Was slowed by the dripping beehive
On its spike—
– from “Honey/Manila Portfolio” by Farnoosh Fathi
“The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.”
– Susan Sontag
What are you reading these days? he asks. By reading, he means, of course, for leisure.
I say, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
What? Why? His face, incredulous.
At first I think to reply, Why not, then I realize the import of his query.
There were years when I read a minimum of seven poems a day, upon waking, during mealtime breaks, before sleep. There were years when I recited Sylvia Plath while running. There were years when I felt like my thoughts, my impressions and expressions, my dreams waxed poetic, or maybe that was mere vanity. In any case, I live prosaic days now, and call it names like focus, usefulness, and duty. I read articles on violence, death, and violent deaths, sleep late, and never have nightmares. Sometimes I kind of miss wresting myself awake, heart racing, from images of chopped-off heads and limbs strewn on the ground in a forest clearing, ruby-eyed crows pecking at soiled, ripped skirts in bloodstained kitchens.
He tells her to read Terry Pratchett. I concur, and say, read Small Gods for a critique of religion, and Feet of Clay for a critique of racism, capitalist relations, and class hierarchy. They look at me, and then at one another. He says, I like Color of Magic for worldbuilding. I say, Pratchett is very funny — it’s so hard to be funny.
I feel boring, but even I don’t wait for my personality to seem interesting again.
I ask her why she hasn’t finished her master’s thesis. It’s been years, I say. Your argument on Kantian freedom is ripe and perspicuous. She says, I have yet to read enough poems — I am still collecting words.
In the past three years or so, I sold almost all of my copies of the classics of English literature — about half of my library. Now that I’ve been assigned to teach a survey course on canonical works from the British Romantic Period to the 20th century, I’ve been buying new copies of old titles I’d thought I wouldn’t need to revisit.
The other day, after attending a lecture on Roman philosophy at the Ateneo, I dropped by Fullybooked and left with a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Earlier, after a class on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, I went into Bookay-Ukay and came out with only Michael Curtis’ Great Political Thinkers Volume 1, even if I also saw a rare copy of Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy.
Birdy, the adolescent daughter of a medieval squire, introduced my grade school self to feminist thought, though I didn’t know the term “feminism” then. In high school I would read Soheir Khashoggi’s Mirage, Jessie Bernard’s The Future of Marriage, Zhou Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, the Songs of Solomon and the Book of Ruth (and the entire Bible, actually, even the part that only told me who begat whom), call myself feminist, and decide never to marry.
Not a decade after that, when I was the acquisitions editor of a publishing house, I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. And I thought, any man I’d consider marrying should first read these books.
I think the only man I considered marrying would simply hate those books, if he had chosen to read them, or me, at all, carefully.
Reading on the Victorian John Stuart Mill, I thought, he seems like the kind of philosopher who’d make a good husband — he was gainfully and meaningfully employed as a civil servant, was utilitarian but not crude and materialistic, championed women’s rights, promoted civil liberties and responsibilities, supported economic democracy and worker cooperatives over capitalist businesses, and critiqued the environmental damages wrought by unrestricted economic growth. He was, however, pro-imperialism; he served as a colonial administrator of the East India Company from the age of 17, and thought that “barbaric” peoples could not be accorded the same rights as “civilized” ones — but then, one can think only so far beyond the way one’s subjectivity has been constituted through one’s social milieu.
Raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham to become a genius, “the crown prince of the Philosophic Radical movement” that had rationalism and the principle of utility at the core of its ideology, Mill pondered emptiness and suicide in his early twenties. Overcoming suicide ideation, he dedicated his life to social justice, invigorated by the poetry of the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and spurred by his friendship and correspondence with the philosopher and women’s rights advocate, Harriet Taylor, whom he eventually married. By all accounts, he admired and cherished his wife, of whom he wrote, upon her death,
Were I [but] capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.
I know why I’m not reading as much poetry and fiction as I used to. It’s the same reason I listen to sad lyrics only when they’re put to a happy, danceable tune, why I stage absence, why I no longer write write, as I had been writing.
The last novel I (re)read was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In an early chapter, Lord Henry Wotton remarks to the lovelorn painter Basil Hallward, “What you have told me is quite a romance, a romance of art one might call it, and the worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic.”
It’s nice to imagine that behind every mundane insipidity or listless productivity might lurk a history of folly, a tender tale.