Monday, April 27, 2009

The Bacon Effect

Gosh, is it nice today! Somebody has planted blue hyacinths in the huge thick, gray anti-terror pots outside the Chrylser Building, on 43rd Street. The lovely smell of those flowers returned me to Boston last week, where a soft breeze (Iam ver egelidos refert tepores, as Catullus would say) brought me the first whiff of Spring this season while visiting Sally. [Hi, Sally!]

I am not sure if you have ever done it before, since everybody does it differently, but if you should ever find yourself in possession of a few warm evenings to fritter away in fun, I would like to recommend this book.

The perfect place to read it, of course, is Boston, in the evening, around seven, sitting on a cool and comfortable concrete pilaster on the banks of the River Charles, in between paragraphs, perhaps, puffing a cigarette, watching the smoke drift off—like the billowy white sails on the little white boats from the Community Boathouse scudding across the copper-plated water. I did this about 15 years ago, in the waning days of the 20th Century, when History was on the verge of being abolished.

Even though History continued—in some quite shocking, though entirely foreseeable ways—I did give up smoking, I am pleased to say, and eventually took up running. And for that, I thank History. I am also happy to note that Boston has continued being beautiful in the spring—much more beautiful than New York. So, if you are in New England today, and if you have the time, if the temperature is above 60 degrees, and if the breeze is right, and the angle of the sun is correct, at sundown, you may be able to reconstruct some of what I call “The Bacon Effect” even now. Think of it as a thought experiment.

A lot of ifs there, I know. The cumulative effect of all of these contingencies may seem a bit daunting at first glance. As dicey as it seems, do not let yourself be deterred from a dip into the subjunctive mood. Reading a bit of Francis is at least worth a try. Recipes involving Bacon usually are.

Lord only knows why I was drawn to read Francis Bacon then. I think I was on an essay reading jag that summer: Montaigne, Bacon, Addison, Steele, Voltaire, Hazlitt, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, William F. Buckley, and others. I go through these odd little literary phases.

One particular phrase from Bacon’s essay 'Of Studies' has never been very far away from my conscious mind since the warm and wonderful day when I first read it:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

“Weigh and consider.” That phrase took on a new and more painful meaning for this writer a few years ago when he was laid off and found himself carting large portions of his library off to The Strand bookstore to be sold to pay for food and rent. I think I might have earned $2000.00 from the sale of those books that summer. I have no idea what I paid for them originally. But it frightens me to think about it.

To what end does this wretched anecdote lead? Probably nowhere, if you write fiction. Still, it said something to me in very practical terms—something I had always suspected about poetry, but had never fully internalized, as a poet, until I actually started looking at the worth of words in terms of how effectively they feed you—which, at the end of the empirical day, more than their truth or their intrinsic beauty, may be all that really matters about the words we use.

Used Books
(Weighed and considered)

I run my index finger down each spine
Along the wall, selecting books to sell:
Collected Tales and Sketches of Mark Twain,
Pierre and the Piazza Tales, Melville;

A fine translation of Montaigne’s Essays,
The Plays of William Shakespeare, bound in green.
A dozen pages flutter from Rabelais’
Gargantua. My God, he’s gotten lean.

I slip the poor thing back among the rest.
To the Lighthouse, Giovanni’s Room—
I take. I tie them up with Tacitus
And Mr. Gibbon’s history of Rome.

All that remains is dust. And poetry:
Nobody seems to buy that shit, but me.

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