I’ve just started some lovely new books that I would like to tell you about. One is Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, which starts out at a fast pace, with a quick survey of the heroine’s childhood and then the early years of her marriage. I am horrified at her struggle with her in-laws, who do their best to make her life as miserable as possible by ordering, manipulating, and guilting her into living as they think she should. It reminds me of Evelina and the way that character got knocked around and ordered about by nearly everyone. It’s painful. But I have a feeling the action hasn’t really gotten going yet, and the book is about to take off in another direction.
Then I started Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, a collection of thoughts from a 14th century Japanese writer. I picked up this book because of Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, which has a brief selection from Kenko. I was utterly charmed by the very first entry (it is now on my sidebar):
What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.
This is such a perfect description of blogging! Or at least what blogging can be. It doesn’t really describe my method, as I tend to keep my nonsensical thoughts to myself, but I enjoy reading bloggers who use the medium this way, and I love the idea of spending whole days doing nothing but jotting down thoughts.
While comparing Essays in Idleness and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the editor of my edition writes that both books:
… belong to the random mode of composition known as zuihitsu (follow the brush) in Japanese. This form — or lack of form — was most congenial to Japanese writers, who turned to it perhaps because it was less “dishonest” than creating fiction. The formlessness of the zuihitsu did not impede enjoyment by readers; indeed, they took pleasure not only in moving from one to another of the great variety of subjects treated but in tracing subtle links joining the successive episodes.
Leaving aside the question of the honesty or dishonesty of fiction versus nonfiction (a point we could argue about for days), I’m drawn to this lack of form, the loosely associative kind of writing you find in essays and diaries and blogs.
Thinking of loosely associative kinds of writing brings me to my third book, Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, which I already have fallen in love with. It’s a travel book, sort of, but also an anti-travel book, meaning that Diski seems to be fighting against the usual approaches to travel every step of the way. In the book’s first section, she describes riding all day on the London underground’s Circle Line, which, as the name implies, travels in a continuous circle, so she never had to get off. She would visit the library, find three books to check out, and read them as she rode around in circles underground. This is a perfect introduction to a book that, so far at least, is about trying to stay still while moving through space, or maybe I should say it’s about the hope that moving through space can offer a novel way of staying still. The next chapter describes a sea voyage she took that allowed her to spend three weeks doing hardly anything but staring at the sea. She’s traveling, but really she’s trying to find a section of time where nothing at all happens. As someone who believes that if only life would slow down and nothing would happen for a while I would be able to think and come to grips with things and finally do something, I find this immensely appealing. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure, but I can’t help but admire her for trying.
Diski might be trying to stay still, but her book wanders all over the place, through time and space and from story to philosophical reflection back to story. It reminds me of Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, another travel book that is about learning to stay still, and which also has a difficult, prickly persona who meanders through places and ideas, trying to make sense of life. This is another genre I need to read more in — the anti-travel travel book. I wonder what other examples are out there.