(Drawing of Eric Karpeles by Vanessa Waring)
Eric Karpeles, Bolinas resident, is the author of Paintings in Proust and Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski. He translated Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp from the French and Proust’s Overcoat from 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, a new biography of Charles de Gaulle, and Henry VI, Part II (Shakespeare). Out of long, pleasurable habit, I always keep the collected novels of Raymond Chandler within arm’s reach; I’m now luxuriantly swimming through The Lady in the Lake. (“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 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 and 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, Dubliners, À la recherche du temps perdu, just off the top of my head. Harriet the Spy. Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees and the poems of Emily Dickinson. The diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf, Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, which introduced me to the concept of “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” As I Lay Dying.
What’s the last great book that you read and recommended to a friend?
A Distant Mirror, 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, France and England in North America by Francis Parkman, the last volumes of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall, Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’ve never made my way through Dickens. 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, the essays of Guy Davenport, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Quest for Corvo, the letters of Flannery O’Connor, Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, “Speck’s Idea” and most every story by Mavis Gallant, 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 remains 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, Henry Adams, Neil Sheehan—always something new to chew on. I’m nearly endlessly rereading Proust in one way or another, and Jane Austen novels, Robert Caro’s volumes on LBJ, Evelyn Waugh, Nabokov, and certain Trollopes.
Describe your ideal reading experience. Why read?
Oh boy. Why breathe? Why eat? There are those great lines from Bohumil Hrabal, 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, 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.