5/04/15 – THE RELUCTANT HEDGEHOG
“Too many books, too little time” is a truism that has plagued me for decades. It has forced me into the painful position of having to decide whether to be a fox or a hedgehog, either tasting a little of all the literary world has to offer, or focusing closely a small subset of it. For most of my life, the fox won out: there is simply too much to sample to dig myself into a hedgehog hole.
There have been exceptions. For a while, I became obsessed with Marilynne Robinson, for example, and read several of her novels back-to-back. A few years ago, I binged on J.M. Coetzee. Now that I think of it, as a child my standard library practice was to scan the shelves for more and more works of favorite authors—Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary, and the author of the first novels I ever read, Carolyn Haywood. So was reading everything I could get my hands on by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie.
For the most part, though, I strive, and have always striven, for eclecticism, mixing up my authors, time periods, and genres as much as possible.
It was only when one of my book clubs read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that I considered the limitations of this approach. Reading this extended essay left me hungry for more. Clearly the man had an incisive mind, but, equally clearly, he showed a rare combination of heart and head, passion and compassion, reverence and brutal honesty, that made for a uniquely compelling voice. I could see this in the essay, and I needed to see how it came out in fiction.
I had wondered about Baldwin’s fiction for years, actually, ever since strolling with a compatriot at Bread Loaf who said his writing idol was James Baldwin. In my ignorance I nodded along and meant to read him. But 20 years went by, and Baldwin never crossed my fox path.
It was only my book club’s decision to read Baldwin that got me going, coupled with knowledge that my son happened to be musical directing an original production of Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room. Clearly if I was ever going to read Baldwin, the time had come.
So, The Fire Next Time finished, I purchased a copy of Baldwin’s Early Novels and Stories. I dove into Giovanni’s Room, which did not disappoint. Here was the same man, and same voice, but flowering now in fictional form. After Giovanni’s Room, I went immediately back into Go Tell It On the Mountain, which meshed, in fictional form, with the James Baldwin who spoke of his early life in The Fire Next Time. I’m now immersed in Another Country, and still enchanted and engaged.
The last time I had such intensive focus on a single novelist was in college, where I read most of George Eliot’s work preparing my senior thesis. I still have the now dog-eared copies of Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner, Romola, and Adam Bede side-by-side on my bookshelf. Just glancing at them reminds me of a summer long ago when I read all of these books and nothing but these books, an experience which brought a kind of familiarity with a single other voice that I never achieved again.
Having all of James Baldwin’s early works in a single volume is so far an even better experience. The physical volume itself is much less likely to get dog-eared than my George Eliots. Indeed, it’s the kind of book that reminds you that books matter, even in its physicality. The book feels substantial and special, from the hard but flexible spine to the woven rayon binding cloth you can see when you lift the glossy protective jacket. How comforting and ennobling to turn pages that don’t rip or rumple at the slightest touch, ones that open and lie flat easily and that were chosen, according to the backflap, to avoid turning yellow or becoming brittle with age.
Wikipedia even tells me this book, like all books in the Library of America series, are sized based on the ancient Greek “golden section,” considered to be the ideal proportion. I don’t know about that, but I do know that it’s thrilling to have a real live, clothbound volume in my hands, one with a satin green ribbon to mark the pages—just like in the good ol’ days when men were men and books were books.
Of course, none of this is to say I plan to devote the rest of my reading days to a handful of authors. It is not even to say that I plan to read all of James Baldwin’s work. I may never even finish the volume, which only contains his earlier fiction. Still, I am now determined to spend a bit more time getting to know single authors who have voices worth heeding.
Perhaps I can even get myself to finish Proust, which I’ve started over three or four times already (always forgetting where I left things hanging). In that case reading complete works and finishing a single book are essentially one and the same.