I am a firm believer in Henry Miller’s statement that books are magical: you don’t need to search for them; they’ll find you. I can think of countless times when this occult, literary magnetism rocked my world.
Like the time I was working on a ranch in Texas, having just been kicked by a horse and trying to erase the frightening scene from my mind, when – lo and behold – there on the ranch manager’s desk lay a paperback edition of "The Secret Life of Plants." Calmed me right down.
Or the time I vacationed on the Florida panhandle only to be depressed by the over-development I witnessed along the Gulf Coast. Describing the “cartoon sprawlscape” to my oldest pal Mothball upon my return, he promptly loaned me his copy of James Kuntsler’s "Home from Nowhere." Lifted me right up out of the doldrums.
Or the time I had completely lost my appetite from all the talk about raw foods, Frakenfoods, and vegetarianism. Then from out of the wild blue yonder came Joseph Mitchell’s essay “All You Can Hold For Five Bucks” slapped down in front of me like a sizzling three-inch porterhouse, loaded with butter and salt, and piled high with French fries. That got my juices flowing again.
This same literary magnetism works in reverse, too. How many of those books force-fed to us during our early education left either no impression on us whatsoever. (Think: “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa,” like a parent talking in a Charlie Brown comic strip), or, worse, repulsed us to the point of physical aversion? For example, I was obliged to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "Tender Is The Night," Flaubert’s "Sentimental Education," and Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” at some point during my undergraduate and graduate careers.
Remember Milk of Magnesia? Well, you get my point. But when those books initially forgotten and/or rejected come back around a second time… Now that’s Magic.
At 19 how could I possibly appreciate the subtleties of a Fitzgerald line like “Rosemary was a romantic and her career had not provided many satisfactory opportunities on that score. Her mother, with the idea of a career for Rosemary, would not tolerate any such spurious substitutes as the excitations available on all sides, and indeed Rosemary was already beyond that – she was In the movies but not at all At them”?
Or at 21 how could I be moved by a Flaubert description as magnificent as, “At the final chord of the waltz, Mademoiselle Vatnaz appeared. She had an Algerian kerchief on her head, lots of piastres on her forehead, and kohl round her eyes; she was dressed in a sort of black cashmere coat over a pale skirt spangled with silver; and in her hand she was carrying a tambourine.”
Or even at 25, how could I be impressed by the genius of a Freudian interpretation like, “ ‘Wood,’ generally speaking, seems, in accordance with its linguistic relations, to represent feminine matter (Materie). The name of the island Madeira means “wood” in Portuguese. Since “bed and board” (mensa et thorus) constitute marriage, in dreams the latter is often substituted for the former, and as far as practicable the sexual representation-complex is transposed to the eating-complex.”
Books are indeed magic – they’ll take your breath away and give it back to you, too.
Richard Horan is an award-winning author who lives and writes in Central New York. His forthcoming novel, "SEEDS: One Man's Journey to Find America’s Literary Trees," is due out in 2010.