Holidays and the Novels
This is a story I always wanted to write. Many that have worked with me know it. It is useful to reflect on the vices and graces of the habit of reading.
I commented in the previous post that I was born with a crazy gene of reading . According to my parent’s chronicles and older siblings, since the day I encountered the alphabet I got hypnotized by any page of paper. In my most remote memories, I see myself reading; my infant illiteracy is for me a blank page.
Curiously, I grew up convinced that I was an irresponsible idler who lost time in novels. I was scolded for spending my time reading instead of making my homework, at night my parents turned off my reading ligth because I stayed awake until late and had to get early to school.
My mother used to tell than in one occasion, worried by the long time the water had been running in the bathroom, she decided to come in and found me beneath the shower, with my arm stretched out, reading the book in my hand. In my parent's house, out of courtesy for others, to read in the table was prohibited (how nice it would be that such rule be observed now with the screens of smart phones that are not so smart). Of course, I did not keep the rule; so I remember the times in which, with my sight on the book and my arm extended, I emptied the coffee maker in the sugar bowl instead of the cup, and similar nonsenses.
When in Law School, my remorse increased. I envied the distinguished group of legal authorities, highly specialized. Professors, researchers and even selected students, who payed no heed to vulgar readings; among them, novels.
My parents decided that since I was a student, my job was solely to study. I was not allowed to work, so it was that I studied as each course passed by, and in final texts periods I only refreshed my memories. The night prior to my Philosophy of Law final essay, in which I had planned to revise pending notes, I was not able to start but until three in the morning, because I was stuck with 'Red and Black' from Stendhal.
When I got back from my honeymoon, I commented in a social party that during the trip I read 'Dr. Zhivago', which is a rather thick brick. When we left the party, Susana made an argument and forbade me to mention the anecdote anymore: ––What will they think of me? She said. I asked her if she had any complaints and her answer was that not at all, but that it was improper to explain, in every occasion, my "incredible sleepless nights."
Suddenly, signals started to change. A book written by twelve prestigious US jurists came to my hands. Each one revealed his ideas and strategies on becoming a good lawyer. I regret having lost it and have tried to replace it with no success. One of the authors, Justice of the US Supreme Court (Oliver Wendell Holmes or another as prestigious as him), surprised me nicely. With the greatest impudence he told that, instead of studying law, he read novels. To his law clerks, pupils and close ones, he recommended to read the great novels. His theory was that we lawyers resolve human problems. Law books teach us certain techniques of interpretation and application of the law; but only the great novels could impregnate us with the values and discernment we need to comply with our mission. Since it was convenient to me, and I liked it, I adopted the principle ever since.
I then knew of other instances. For example, Carlos Fuentes tells that Don Manuel Pedroza, when asked about recommendations for readings on commercial law, recommended the 'Human Comedy' of Balzac". Allan Farnsworth, distinguished professor of contracts in Columbia University, wrote a beautiful book: 'Changing Your Mind. The Law or Regretted Decisions'; which is full of legal sources and literary quotes: such as 'The Odyssey', ‘Faust', Luther, Rousseau, Lewis Carroll and even Shirley MacLaine.
Legitimated in such a way, my expectations, previous and later ones, confirmed the value of reading novels. I got the best impressions of how we are seen by non lawyers, in novels such as the ones written by Dickens'; in 'Bleak House' I realized how litigation bitters and destroys the life of the parties, in 'The Pickwick Papers', how lawyers behave and how we are seen by those who are not, in 'David Copperfield', the warmth of a human lawyer and how despicable is an ambitious one.
Susana died unexpectedly; I lost a gift from God. From one day to the other I found myself in the middle of a dessert of desolation, sadness, anger and bewilderment. A psychiatrist whom I keep in nice memory, Juan de Dios Hernández, gave me priceless help. In our first interview, following my tendency of resolving everything with a book, I asked him to recommend me a good one for my situation. He recommended me the great novels. My answer was that I had been reading those during my whole life. His comment was that such was the reason for which, in the middle of my situation, I was fine. And indeed, there were many exceptional, one of them autobiographic, 'For Those I Loved', by Martin Gray.
The years went by, I married Laura; as God did with Job, he provided me with another gift. The happiness restored. Since then, Laura took care of her children and mine. My children went into adolescence and, given the circumstances, great battles shattered our home. I remembered Dr. Hernández and came back to him so he could provide some advice to handle those problems. I asked the same question, what could I read on adolescent education? He gave me the same answer: the great novels. Then I made a new list, 'The Catcher in the Rye', Dostoyevsky’s ‘Adolescent', 'Jean Christophe' and other great rebels.
And the story could go on. But it is time for some comments.
I insist, reading is not essential for a happy and valuable life. But it is a nutritious habit for us who suffer the vice. It may be nicely complemented with theatre, cinema, pleasant conversations and other wandering endeavors.
The "great novels" is a vague concept. I already said it in my previous post; it is convenient to be selective, but there are no rules. Fame and perpetuity of the classic novels recommends them; but there are too many and many valuable others outside the common lists. Sometimes a good movie suggests the reading of the book in which it was based. The state of mind, the age and other circumstances also play a part. Novels I had read which I did not like, or failed to understand at first, got me enthused in successive readings; and vice-versa.
I distrust novels and movies showing an uninterrupted succession of high pitch situations. As in life, the ones with agitated periods and quiet ones are good; better with boring periods. Those who depict round characters. Like great symphonies they have allegros, lentos, andantes, adagios, and specially, transitions.
A good novel deserved to be re-read several times. André Maurois, I think, commented having read 'Black and Red' more than sixty times. The author of any work that is worth reading took years in writing it, it is unfair that we deal with it in just a few hours, and throw it away. When starting our first reading, we don't know the setting, the characters and plot; many details go unnoticed. But in subsequent readings we are familiarized with the characters, we notice the details and enjoy thousand times the novel.
One day, Mantilla Molina invited Julio Derbez to ‘Hamlet'; Julio answered, with humor of course: –– I already know how it ends.
The wise reader makes sacrifices and turns the little screens off for periods of one hour or longer; it is impossible to do otherwise. For example, the electronic reader Kindle informs that reading ‘Brothers Karamazov' takes approximately 20 hours; Pickwick, about 17 hours. It is worth it.
My coments will follow in the next post, which will be the last one on holidays.
Holidays and the Tortures of Reading 28, July, 2014 (Edited on December 16,2015) http://bit.ly/1YllYOs