If you’re someone like me, someone with an insatiable curiosity on top of being an avid reader, then you’ll know the feeling of discovery when you pick up a new book. It’s something you feel in perpetuity, but I think at a certain of life it’s much stronger.
That stage of life is approximately between 18 and 25, I reckon. The binding confines of routine and discipline that are a part of school life are behind you. Most, if not all, of the things previously barred to you are now legal. You can drive a car, have a drink, have sex with almost anyone you want. There’s a mad rush of possibility when you look forward at the long road and many years ahead of you. Fuck it feels good, like anything is possible, like everything is new, like nothing can be kept from a clever and resourceful character you figure yourself to be. You just know it’s going to be wonderful and adventurous and memorable as all fuck. Man, you just soak up the possibility like a sponge, and off you go.
Like I said, if you’re curious and a decent reader you’ll do your share of driving and drinking and fucking, and maybe a little more too, but in between there are a mountain of books to get through, and ideas, and experiences, whole fucking vistas to absorb and swallow up. That’s when every book you pick up feels like a whole new world waiting for you to discover. That’s a precious feeling.
I remember it so well. I was curious about other people’s ideas. I had a lot of questions. I was filled with wonder. I wanted to know why and how. I wanted to feel some of the things I read others felt; wanted to explore as they did, wanted, very often, to set aside the book for a moment and imagine that life as if it was mine – or else my life as it could be. There was a lot of learning in this. It was a steep curve but I was hungry for it. I read all sorts, but I remember poetry, and Hemingway, remembering reading Camus and then Sartre and pondering what it all meant. I remember reading Hesse and Manne, before getting onto Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Lermontov and Pushkin. There was another too who had a great impact on me, Antoine de Saint Exupery.
He was the dashing philosopher, the man who flew mail planes before the war and wrote about the experience. He was deep thinker, sensitive to the swirling currents about him. His books read as grand adventure stories, but there is a profound element that I swallowed whole at the time.
I was impressionable then. If I read him again now (which I will at some point), then the experience will be different to what it was then. That’s true of most books, I think, the experience soaks up not just the words of the text but also the events of your life. There’s a cross-pollination when the book is a good one. In the case of these books I was also young and aggressively seeking experience. The notion of flying mail planes through wind and storm, across the Andes and over the Sahara, was incredibly romantic to the man I was. This I could do. There was a wistful element to it: if only I was there to see it for myself, to feel it. It was a form of elevated fantasy, but at least I had the genius of St Ex to guide me. In any case, while the romance deepened with the fact that he disappeared during the war while flying, the reality of it was probably a little too real.
I make reference to him now because I’ve been getting into the habit of posting my thoughts on the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching. I’ve started to delve into the past to give recommendations based on my experience, and for whatever random reason St Exupery was one of the first authors I wrote of (along with Paula Fox). I could write about books all day.
That’s the thing about a good book – it becomes a life experience. I often remember things by the books I was reading at the time, or I pluck a book from the shelf and a flood of memories surrounding it return to me. There’s a little bit of Proust’s madeleine in every good book you experience.