cross-posted from Dagblog
I stopped blogging for a while around Thanksgiving, partly because I was driving instead (I managed to log about 2500 highway miles in a week and a half), and partly because I needed to unplug both from national politics and from the unrelenting dailiness of office politics. (I go to more meetings at work than I used to, and answer a lot more e-mails.) The advent of winter holidays has always been a good time for me to step away from the noisy bustle and think more about what is durable. It's stepping out of the car after miles and miles of highway and looking up at the cold clear stars over New Hampshire.
Now that I've entered middle age, fewer things seem likely to endure. I no longer have the illusion when I walk in the New England woods that the forest is more than a few decades old, new growth over what used to be farmland. And I can no longer pretend to myself that those woods will abide from season to season now that the seasons themselves have begun to change. I know the winter stars will return for every solstice, but I'm no longer entirely sure about the winter itself.
Maybe for that reason, I have begun doing something that I haven't done in years. For the first time since early in grad school, I have started reading Renaissance literature for pleasure.
It's not that I haven't read a lot of Renaissance literature over the last fifteen years. In fact, I read Renaissance literature all the time: I teach it, research it, write about it. And I have always derived real pleasure from that reading, because the books themselves are intricate and beautiful and arrestingly strange. But there is a difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure, no matter how much you enjoy your work. What I had gotten away from doing is reading these poems simply for recreation. And I had not realized how much I missed it.
I've been making or finding time, most days over the last couple of weeks, to read a sizable but manageable section of one long poem or another, generally in a range between four hundred and a thousand lines. Some days that time gets sewn together out of several shorter scraps; on the best days, I have the luxury of sitting down and doing the reading uninterrupted. I respect the units each work is divided into, so that when I come to the end of a canto or a book or whatever, that's it for that day. If I don't finish a section, I get to it the next day, but I don't plow straight through to the next section of the poem. This enforces a leisurely pace. Reading the two poems I'm currently reading on this schedule would take about three months even if I didn't miss a day here or there, as I inevitably will. That speed is completely impractical if you're reading for work or for school. It's a pace designed for pleasure rather than business, and it works pretty well. In fact, I'm convinced that at least one of these poems was intended to be read at just about this speed.
These are books that I seldom teach, and almost never teach in their entirety. They're also books that I never write about, and have no plans to write about in the foreseeable future. Neither fits into the book I'm writing now, or the book I'll write after this one, or anywhere in the long queue of articles and conference papers I need to finish. I'm not looking for ideas to work into articles. The point of reading these books is that I enjoy reading these books.
That impractical pleasure is deeply necessary. I was in no danger of losing it when I started out in my profession. When I started graduate school I wasn't many years past my first encounter with any of those books, and the excitement of literary discovery was still fresh in my heart. Reading for orals was a stupendous feast, even if it mandated some overconsumption. And beginning my first job required me to think about some famous texts in ways I hadn't before, so that I could teach them. I'm not in danger, today, of losing my love for these works. But I am twenty-five years from the experience of reading them for the first time, and I have at least another twenty-five years of my working life ahead of me. If I spent the next quarter-century reading only instrumentally, in order to complete some task or other, I would risk losing touch with why I am doing this at all. My connection to this material is not a permanent thing to be taken for granted. It is something that I need to leave time and space, something that I need to husband and renew.
But reading very old books for pleasure, unplugged from my various professional tasks and the short-attention-span demands of office life, also reminds me of how very durable literature can be. Not eternal, and not unchanging: these poems change with the years because the years change their readers, and hold the pages up to the different lights of different days. But I am grateful that I can read these words four hundred years later with a full measure of delight and wonder. It's a comfort to be able to turn to those works after years have gone by, and to find them both familiar and subtly changed now that I read them with older eyes.
And I am thankful for the enduring power of the art works that I do teach to puzzle and move, to confound and amuse, centuries after they were first written. I am grateful to make students laugh by reading them a four-hundred-year old joke. I'm privileged to be there at their discovery of these works and these words for the first time, to share the moment when they encounter these books as something new. And I am desperately grateful to teach works so rich and complicated that I can teach them for decades on end without any danger of becoming bored. A book that can reward rereading after reading, years on end, is a gift of humbling artistic generosity. And the past has left us an enormous trove of such gifts, far more than any of us have the time to properly enjoy. At the end of this autumn, I am thankful for art, and for the company it keeps us. As Keats says to the Grecian urn, "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man." I am counting on that abiding companionship for the many winters still to come.