Sunday, December 22, 2019

On re-reading old books, continued.....

On December 15th, I waxed nostalgic about reading old text or other academic books.  We're moving soon, downsizing as Father Time and retirement dictate.  The most painful aspect of that process is purging our once-swollen bookshelves.  Realistically, most books that we've read, academic or fiction etc., wouldn't have been read again.  They have, nonetheless, served as a kind of esthetic 'wallpaper', something upon which to gaze comfortingly each day.  Many were read not just years, but decades ago.  Dusty they may be on the shelf, and in our memories, but they serve a purpose like nothing else can do.  Perhaps you have a similar feelings about the books on your shelves, as you may about the paintings on your walls.

Anyway, from time to time, I pull one of these venerable books from the shelf, blow off the dust, and read it again.  It's part curiosity, part nostalgia, and part the reality that if I read it years ago I hardly remember what was in it.  That, by the way, is a great benefit of having an imperfect memory: You can go back again!  Indeed, I pity those with long-enduring and detailed memories in this respect, because for me most re-reading is either totally, or mainly, new.  Even hefty tomes like War and PieceAnna Karenina or Origin of Species, which I've read and re-read, seem largely new and fresh each time.  A gift of amnesia, one might say!

To me one aspect of reading, especially for non-fiction, is to muse about the authors' lives.  They may no longer be with us, but their memories live on as fresh as ever, when one reads their work. The experiences, though factually long past, exist anew, having been safely preserved between the covers.  Even the inner life of the author, especially in narrative non-fiction, comes alive again.  And, oddly, or spookily, this is so even if both the authors, and all those about whom they write, are in reality no more.  Of course, in this context one must think of his or her own temporary state.....  If what we write--tomes, emails, letters (or blog posts!)--still exists, will the authors--will we--come alive for others?

Fresh and young.....
In this context, I wrote the other day about re-reading an anthropological theory book by Leslie White, an inspirational professor from my graduate school days.  Since that post, and because we're downsizing, I have re-browsed another book that I was ready to purge: The Savage and the Innocent, by David Maybury-Lewis, published in 1965--now about 55 years ago! 
This very readable ethnography is a compelling description of adventures he and his wife Pia had when studying and living with remote Brazilian natives called the Shavante.

I have never done fieldwork in a remote site like the Brazilian rainforest, so narratives of such experience have been very compelling as a substitute.  Indeed, sometime around 1980 I met the author, who was then Chair of Anthropology at Harvard, where I had other friends there and had gone from my then-location in Houston, to give a talk about my work on the demography of 'anthropological' populations, including ones like the Shavante.  For painful personal reasons, it was a difficult day for Maybury-Lewis, so I only got a quick 'hello' from him.  But the idea of putting a face to the author of this most-readable book, was for me a notable privilege.

Upon re-reading his book after several decades, as I noted above, I find it 'transporting', taking me (again) to places the likes of which I have almost never actually seen, much less lived in.  The author, and I'm sure all the people in the village he visited, exist no more.  Oddly, or amazingly, they can't experience themselves as they were then, but I can!  In some magical way, figuratively speaking, reading his book it is like rehydrating a preserved museum specimen and giving it new life.  Of course, the fact that the author and his study subjects can take on a new life in my mind, presumably doesn't mean they can take on, or re-experience, their lives, though this is something to ponder.

The magic is no different, in this kind of case, than for fictional characters like Anna Karenina herself, or Ebenezer Scrooge--or even Scrooge McDuck for that matter.  That is, in a sense, most strange and wonderful.  Life's physical limits do not place limits on the life one can, in a real sense, experience.  Let us revel in that mysterious ability!

So, I hope we all get a book for Christmas--and if nobody gives you one, well, the next day sneak out and go to Barnes & Noble.....

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