Nobel Laureate Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska has passed away. Though only slightly acquainted with her poetry it was her slim volume Non Required Reading that inspired my approach to talking about books:
I got the idea of writing Nonrequired Reading from the sections called “Books Received” you find in many literary journals. It was easy to see that only a tiny percentage of the books listed later made their way to the reviewer’s desk… but things look different in the bookstores. Most if not all of the rapturously reviewed books lay gathering dust on the shelves for months before being packed off to be pulped, whereas all the many others, unappreciated, undiscussed, unrecommended, were selling out on the spot. I felt the need to give them a little attention. At first I thought I’d be writing real reviews… But I soon realized that I couldn’t write reviews and didn’t even want to. That basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation…
For Nonrequired Reading, Szymborska collected about a hundred of these notices—one of my favorites is “The Button in Literature” by Zbignew Kostrzewa. After considering the origin of the button and ruminating on ancient Egyptian clothing she concludes, “At this point, those prone to eye rolling will want to ask me a question: Don’t I have bigger problems than the troubles of the tailors on the Nile? Of course I have bigger problems. But that’s no reason not to have small ones.”
And here’s where I fell in love with Ms Szymborska:
One more comment from the heart. I’m old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that mankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels, and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these distractions—without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and possibly dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or a take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.
In her 1996 Nobel lecture, Ms. Szymborska spoke self-deprecatingly about the lives of poets:
Great films can be made of the lives of scientists and artists, she said, but poets offer far less promising material.Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?
Currently reading The Last Holiday-Gil Scott Heron (Grove Press)