Lands of Priests and Caliphs
I walked out of a cafe about half an hour ago after lunch, climbed into my car and turned on the radio. On CBC radio 2 the opera from the New York Metropolitan Opera House is broadcast on Saturday afternoons and on radio 1 a programme entitled “Definitely Not The Opera” runs in parallel. My radio was tuned to radio 1 and I was pitched into the middle of an interview with an artist from Winnipeg.
He said that he had been thinking about frozen rivers (it’s that time of the year when I begin to wonder whether there is any other sort but the dynamiting of the Rideau River outside our house did begin today—the harbinger of Spring) and how the ice was just frozen water. The river had effectively been stopped (frozen?) in time. He said that books contained ideas frozen in time and he had therefore constructed a work of art combining the two. I missed the part of the interview where the art work was described but it presumably included books on the Assiniboine River.
That statement about books containing ideas frozen in time jarred with me. Many, many years ago I read a book (by Anthony Hopkins?) on music that described Sonata Form. He likened the form to walking through a house that you don’t know but are thinking of buying. You enter the hall and get a first impression. You then tour the rest of the house and end up back in the hall. You see the hall again (the recapitulation) but because you now know the rest of the house you see it in a different way. In a sonata you hear the theme again during the recapitulation but, because of the journey you’ve made in the meantime, it means more to you: the notes are the same (more-or-less) but the context is different.
Surely books are the same: their ideas are not frozen because ideas have to be interpreted. At the moment I’m rereading Gerald Priestland’s autobiography, “Something Understood” which I last read at least 15 years ago and Dimitri Gutas’ “Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society” which I last read about 6 months ago.
In each case, the ideas I read during this recapitulation are new, not because the words have changed, but because I have been through other rooms and can now see these books in a new light. The words are the same but the context is different.
And it’s not just the ideas that the books contain. Sometimes I pick up a book from my shelves and find the unmistakable signs that, at some time in the past, I dropped it in the bath (I spend hours lying in the bath reading and sometimes books suffer). That too is part of the context that I bring to the next reading.
At the risk of being accused (by one particular colleague whom I won’t name) of being a relativist, the idea that books are ideas frozen in time really seems indefensible.