07 February, 2014

Through the River of History's Reads

Making a move soon from the Long Island borough of Brooklyn to Manhattan, East Village. The rent is high, the space small, but the accommodations are pretense for the ease with which we'll get to places of work, leisure, food, cultural centers and friends just outside of the double-doored apartment building. The fifth-floor view of Lower Manhattan is especially worth the price tag. When Spring comes, which every softened transplant to New York City wishes for being so unused to snow, ice and temperatures hanging just above or below freezing, we'll have a pleasure with access to a small planked rooftop via the steel black twisting staircase at one end of the apartment. This will be our home until the shores of Scandinavia call us in for summertime travels, working farm-to-farm.

Meanwhile, shifting small piles of books, changing their locations in the store, adjusting prices and tracking sales - these are my daytime duties. Increase the sales, add a small amount of ingenuity - an idea for a gift bundle of book, tarot card deck and magnet. Perhaps the managers will credit your suggestion, or forget you mentioned anything. Keep to ones's responsibilities to the customers and tasks; don't tread on those which are not yours. Co-worker and I, there is a central question about our "duties" to ask: Does a nearby reader reach out for an experience, or does she reach out for an item of consumption? Consumption - both etymological sickness and contemporary necessity. The charity of lessening ones burden materially inclines more towards the conscientious head but shies from leading in the direction of the heart's outpouring. Trickling maybe, drop-by-precious-drop of charitable liquid, like a Lincoln penny one doesn't pick up from pulling out one's hand from the tight fitting denim pocket. One of us at the bookstore owns no books - he leaves them where he may finish them, even on the seat of the subway as he rides home. Close this circle of thought around your own wrist. Do you reach for an experience, or do you leave one absence for another?

A number of writers and their books on the activity of reading grace a large table's worth of space in the basement of my bookstore. A few writers in particular come to mind with their titles, some of which are quite numerous and reflect on the reading/writing dichotomy. Italo Calvino's Why Read the Classics?, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, Milan Kundera's Encounters, and some other assorted folk of scribbles on the how-and-why of the very activity which the place the customer is standing in has been erected for consuming such "novelties." Manguel has an essay on the homepage of his website which carries the line serving as the inspiration for this post. It reads:

Our actions must be justified by our literature and our literature must bear witness to our actions. Therefore to act as citizens, in times of peace as in times of war, is in some sense an extension of our reading, since our books hold the possibility of guiding us through the experience and knowledge of others, allowing us the intuition of the uncertain future and the lesson of an  immutable past

My current book of choice is E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World. It's form and content are justifiably shortened (it was written with the young in mind) but he has an astonishing way of stitching together the vast ages that at already half-past the middle mark of the book I'm engaged, can easily recall the previous twenty chapters, and have filled in gaps of centuries I had until recently been ignorant about. History is at times, as Gombrich states, "not a pretty poem," but this is the reality of it which nonetheless moves in the sinuous shape of lines in verse and is the story which we tell ourselves about ourselves. What shall we say about today? Every emergence from a subway station in the morning, breaking news for the breaking day: New Yorkers sick of snow, Deadly streets to cross, Philip Seymour Hoffman? Dead, but drugs not taxicabs. Little or none of this will be history in years to come, but it is demanding and succeeds in dividing our attention to listen to that very intuitive feeling between "the uncertain future and the lesson of an immutable past," as M. Manguel states on his Home Page.

It is on the train that most, if not all of my reading currently, is accomplished. Cramped against my fellow commuters and the stainless steel bars or rubber jawed doors, or if I'm lucky on the stiff but foot-relieving and pre-warmed subway seat. With hardback two-handed or paperback one-handed, I read. Of course standing with the hardback in hand and inside a jolting car I cannot use both - it's a hand cramp I pay for while grasping the bar above my head. Riding the Northeast Regional Amtrak train last week to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see one of my dearest and oldest friends, I had the luxury of easing back in a comfortable seat in an uncrowded space with a wintry landscape before my face lifting up from my pages. Those pages were bound in a landmark book which is the utmost compliment to every post I've made in the last month. It is one that is challenging my mind and my heart on the most important occupation of my life, and which speaks through this question, one which Manguel and Gombrich address in their own way: Is education possible?

The posts to follow shall reveal this book, it's content, form, considerations in light of previous readings and shall culminate (or be complimented in adjoining posts, I have not decided just yet) in the public presentation of the core activities conducted by a group known as The Institute of General Inquiry, which was founded in Portland, Oregon in 2011 and existed for little more than 3 years. Keep abreast of this upcoming event, as participation and thoughtful commentary is heartily welcomed, in fact, needed. The Internet has no blood but our own.

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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening