The Ax For The Frozen Sea Within

When I began this blog in January of 2008, my plan was quite simply to post some of the notable passages from the books and periodicals I had read over the years. The passages were to be drawn from my Commonplace Book where they were kept throughout this time. I recall my first post was a sample of the forty-five passages I had saved from Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

My model was the “Commonplace Section” from each issue of the American Scholar. They consist of extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic, listed on two pages of this publication without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, Marriage, and in the most recent issue the timely theme of Debt.

Instead, I have found so much to write about in the books I’ve been reading lately and the abundant material on the Web, that I’ve not really had a chance to post very many passages from my Commonplace Book. I will do so today. They have been selected from the most frequently mentioned topic in the collection—Literature. I invite you to consider some of them.

No days, perhaps, of all our childhood are ever so fully lived as those that we had regarded as not being lived at all: days spent wholly with a favorite book. Proust

On Ernest Hemingway’s centennial, Gordimer concluded, “too much will be speculated about him, too much spoken about him, too much written about him…let us leave his life alone. It belongs to him, as he lived it. Let us read his books.”

Most literature is about screwing up one’s life in one way or another. Richard Posner

…but what I looked forward to most in reading Proust were revelations about myself. The best moments had been those in which I descended most deeply into myself, as though the text were an elevator shooting me down to the lowest levels of a mine, or, to reverse the image, shot me up into the light, so I achieved a sudden clarity of vision…Proust understood that every reader, in reading, reads himself. Far from minding this, he saw it as the writer’s task to facilitate it. “Thus the writer’s word is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.” Phyllis Rose

If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat. Azar Nafisi

My grandfather always says that’s what books are for…To travel without moving an inch. Jhumpa Lahiri

I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Tobias Wolff

Proust once compared friendship to reading, because both activities involved communion with others, but added that reading had a key advantage: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.” Alain de Botton

Kafka was right. “A book should be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Stuart Brent

…readers usually identify with one or other of the characters in a story so that they can the better escape from the problems and boredom of their own lives. That is why most of them read fiction in the first place. Elliot Perlman

Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere. Elliot Perlman

The reason why we like a book is because we say, Yes, because life is like that, and the reason why we stop reading certain kinds of childish books is because we say, Good story but life’s not like that. The whole question of recognition is terribly important and that’s why as you get older your reading experience inevitably gets richer because you have more of your own experience to bring to it. Tim Parks

What am I looking for here? Nothing much and yet everything: amusement, an expanded knowledge of how other people live--and lived--and, chiefly, those truths of the heart that, for complicated reasons, are otherwise hidden from us and unavailable anywhere else but in literature. Joseph Epstein

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. Anita Brookner