A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.
Eric Karpeles, Bolinas resident, is the author of Paintings in Proust , opens a new windowand Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, opens a new window. He translated Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, opens a new window from the French and Proust’s Overcoat , opens a new windowfrom the Italian. He is also a painter.
What are you reading now? What’s in your pile of books?
A stack (or stacks) of books invariably sits beside my bed. Currently, I’m reading James’ The Ambassadors, opens a new window, a new biography of Charles de Gaulle, and Henry VI, Part II, opens a new window (Shakespeare). Out of long, pleasurable habit, I always keep the collected novels of Raymond Chandler, opens a new window within arm’s reach; I’m now luxuriantly swimming through The Lady in the Lake, opens a new window. (“She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread…”)
Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you are looking for?
Both. I come in periodically to browse the shelves, but mostly I’m an active exploiter of the library’s LinkPlus, opens a new window program, which allows me to borrow books from an amazing pool of libraries nationwide. I identify the books I need online and come claim them at the library when they arrive; it is an invaluable resource for independent researchers.
What was your reading experience as a child? Did you grow up with a lot of books?
Books did furnish the rooms of my childhood home. From the start, I read as a way of understanding being alive. Days without books were intolerably long and tedious. Throughout my childhood, my father worked for the publisher Alfred Knopf , opens a new windowand brought books home for me on a regular basis. He monitored my likes and dislikes and became expert at predicting my responses. He knew more about me from observing what I read than I knew yet about myself.
Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your life?
Many. The Odyssey, opens a new window, Dubliners, opens a new window, À la recherche du temps perdu, , opens a new windowjust off the top of my head. Harriet the Spy, opens a new window. Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees, opens a new window and the poems of Emily Dickinson, opens a new window. The diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf, opens a new window, Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, opens a new window, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, opens a new window, which introduced me to the concept of “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” As I Lay Dying., opens a new window
What’s the last great book that you read and recommended to a friend?
A Distant Mirror, opens a new window, by the inimitable Barbara Tuchman. A page-turning account of 14th century life that has stunning resonance with our own times: the Muslim infidel at the gate clamoring to destroy our “advanced” civilization, rampant sexual abuse in the church, the nobility’s inspired concept of funding their crusades by increasing taxation on the poor…
Is there a book that you always meant to read but still haven’t. Any highly rated books that you thought were over rated?
There are far too many books I want to read but have not yet: Don Quixote, opens a new window, France and England in North America, opens a new window by Francis Parkman, the last volumes of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall, opens a new window, Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, opens a new window. I’ve never made my way through Dickens, opens a new window. It’s hard to assess why I don’t just pick them up, but I do feel each book has its moment of presenting itself—I’m either willing to plunge at that moment or not. I’m going to leap over the question about over-rated books (too personal and unjustifiable) and instead name some that I think are under-rated, or under-valued: the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, opens a new window, the essays of Guy Davenport, opens a new window, Memoirs of Hadrian, opens a new window by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Quest for Corvo, , opens a new windowthe letters of Flannery O’Connor, opens a new window, Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, opens a new window, The Origins of Totalitarianism, opens a new window by Hannah Arendt, “Speck’s Idea” and most every story by Mavis Gallant, opens a new window, etc…
Are there any books you like to re-read?
Any book that has brought me pleasure I find deserves rereading, and, as I age, I find rereading almost as significant and meaningful as the discovery of new voices, if not more. Reading a book at 17 and again at 34 and again at 63 engenders a kind of shifting perspective on my own development as a sentient being. Mme Bovary , opens a new windowremains immutable, but I’ve learned to see her with fresh eyes as my own accumulated experience of life expands and continues to inform my sensibility. This applies to my reading of history as well--Thucydides, opens a new window, Henry Adams, opens a new window, Neil Sheehan, opens a new window—always something new to chew on. I’m nearly endlessly rereading Proust, opens a new window in one way or another, and Jane Austen novels, Robert Caro’, opens a new windows volumes on LBJ, Evelyn Waugh, opens a new window, Nabokov, opens a new window, and certain Trollope, opens a new windows.
Describe your ideal reading experience. Why read?
Oh boy. Why breathe? Why eat? There are those great lines from Bohumil Hrabal,, opens a new window the Czech novelist: “When I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence in my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.” For Proust, opens a new window, what he was reading was not more important than how he was reading: “Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.” Television is the source of all contemporary upheaval, breeding ignorance and conformity, substituting a passive acceptance of pre-digested information calculated to subdue in place of active learning. Reading a book is a courageous, affirmative, unsettling act of independent thinking.