By J.S. Porter
I’m learning to live with my contradictions.
I live in India but I aspire to Japan. I don’t want to live in New Delhi. I want to live in Zen: work on bare tables, look out unobstructed windows, and reach for volumes on orderly, sequential shelves. Instead, I live and work in clutter, in a basement of thousands of books where one book hides another, where I purchase new copies of books I already own, where I’ve lost control of what I have and who I am.
That’s okay. I’ve resigned myself to minestrone and Delhi while harbouring secret ambitions for consomm’ and Kyoto.
I love books. Love them fat or skinny, in draft, proofs, or in completed form, with pictures or without, on poetry or philosophy. I have a special love for small books, books the size of your hand, books under a hundred pages. I’m more Lilliputian in taste than Brobdingnagian. And yet, I hear, and respond to, the call of the big.
I hold strong affection for books that grow like weeds, that refuse to define themselves, that you need two hands to carry. Here are five big books on my love list:
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae. It’s the wildest, wackiest book of literary criticism that I’ve ever read. Think of someone with Harold Bloom’s book knowledge and Norman Mailer’s manic energy, and you get something like Paglia, the fastest-talking woman on the planet. An intellectual on speed.
Gordon Sheppard, HA!. It’s not a whodunit, but a why’d-he-do-it. It’s Qu’bec history and politics, it’s the study of Hubert Aquin’s suicide, it’s photographs, newspaper articles, music selections, letters, interviews, it’s theatre on the page, it’s a movie on paper, it’s the Canadian Moby Dick, with a man (Sheppard) chasing a whale (Aquin). It’s a study of madness madly conceived and exuberantly written.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon. Some step up to the table and eat gingerly, selectively. They nimble on some lobster, they swallow an oyster, they pick at some shrimp. Not Bloom. He eats the whole smorgasbord, flesh and bone, fish and foul. He reaches for the world, the western world at any rate and swallows it, except for the Bible and the Greeks. He has the appetite of Falstaff, and the same manners.
Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy and Wisdom & Metaphor. Sometimes Zwicky writes little books, small volumes of poetry, and sometimes she writes tomes you can’t fit in your lunchbox. On the right hand page, she quotes the world (bands of poets and philosophers) and on the left hand page, she launches her own vessels of exploratory thought. If you were stranded in the Sahara, you’d want her big books for companions. They’d feed and fill you for months.
Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal. This is my favourite Merton. His last say about the world, a say that includes thoughts on Christianity and Buddhism. Observations on people and landscape. Dreams. Readings. His encounters with the Dalai Lama and the Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa, his talk on Marxism and Monasticism in Bangkok. The Asian Journal is a travelogue, a photo album, a book of quotations, a manual on meditation, even a menu and bar list. One is reminded of Jacques Derrida’s thought on the postcard. What’s central: the stamp, the address, the picture or the message? The journal, the most democratic of art forms and inherently anti-climactic and serendipitous, puts all entries on an equal plane’beer and butterflies, magpies and the Madhyamika attitude.
Here’s to the large and those who live in it! Here’s to big books that, in the words of my friend Dale Behnke, “incite the madness that life is made of!”
Sometimes I think the best work that has come out of Canada has come in the form of little books, thin books— brief books. In non-fiction, I think of Marshall McLuhan’s Counterblast (picture and word delivering a one-two punch of meaning), Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, and Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community (another Massey Lecture series gem). I think of Sinclair Ross’s As For Me And My House in fiction and Michael Ondaatje’s Handwriting in poetry. Little books every one.
Give me three other little Canadian books. One’s poetry, one’s fiction and the third is a book of thought:
Dennis Lee, SoCool. This is Lee’s latest. It’s pitched loosely at those in their early teens. It has a fair number of what I call manchild poems, poems that marry the child with the man and musically combine the jig with the dirge. The Irish poet Michael Longley defines poetry as “the tongue at play.” Lee’s tongue in these poems makes merry, makes sad, makes serious fun within the same poem. Take the last poem of the book, for instance.
Often at night, sometimes
out in the snow or going into the music, the voice says,
I don’t know what it means.
Just, “Push it. Go further. Go deeper.”
And when they come talking at me I get
antsy at times, but always the voice keeps saying:
“That is not it. Go deeper.”
There is danger in this, also
breakaway hunches and I believe it can issue in
flickers of homing; but I
cannot control it, all I know is the one thing—
“Deeper. You must go further. You must go deeper.”
Kristjana Gunnars, Night Train To Nyk’bing. This little book moves you about, takes you places, geographic places and emotional places. It also reminds you that you need a companion when you travel. Gunnars travels with Clarice Lispector, one of the strangest and most powerful writers that I’ve ever encountered. Gunnars quotes Lispector who says her writing is “a night passed entirely on a back road where no one is” and her story is “of roots dormant in their strength.” Lispector, when she talks about the divine, which is seldom, talks about it not as He or She, but as It, a non-definable, unclassifiable presence, a power that resides as much in a cockroach as it does in a person.
George Grant, Time As History (CBC Massey Lectures 1969). Has anyone ever said more about Nietzsche in 52 pages than Grant in this book? I admire this little book because it introduces me to the word “enucleate.” “To enucleate means to extract the kernel of a nut, the seed of a tree.” And that is what Grant does in his study of Nietzsche, he enucleates the essential core of his thinking. “Nietzsche affirms that once we know that horizons are relative and man-made, their power to sustain us is blighted.” Grant poses the question, “…how can we overcome the blighting effect of living without horizons?” Grant lives the question, and as readers, we’re called on to live it with him.
Two other little books come quickly into my consciousness. I don’t want to be excessively chauvinistic. I want to stay within North America, but add two non-Canadian works to my list of little books.
Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus. Kerouac wrote a lot of other books for which he’s more famous: Book of Go (On the Road), Book of Blues (his poetry), Book of Dreams, and the on-going and unfinished book of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac moving about, getting blue and dreaming. Allan Ginsberg loved everything Kerouac wrote, but he had special affection for Kerouac’s haiku. The best haiku writer around, Ginsberg said. I thought he was exaggerating, but I don’t think so now. How about this?
In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age.
the office girl
Unloosing her scarf.
Thomas Merton’s Emblems of a Season of Fury is a little book in which Merton gets down who he is. The book encompasses his poems (some of his very best: “Song For Nobody,” “Song: If You Seek…,” “Night-flowering Cactus,” “The Fall,” and “Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing”); his satire (“Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces”); his translations (primarily from the Spanish, including poems by Vallejo, Cardenal and Pablo Antonio Cuadra); and his meditations, including his most beautiful, “Hagia Sophia.” If you manage to get a copy of Emblems in a used bookshop, consider yourself lucky.