Wednesday, 20 February 2013

On finding a diary in the bottom drawer


I was rummaging in the bottom drawer looking for some old papers when I found it. One of those big plain A4 books, rather business-like with its matter-of-fact black cover, red spine, red corners. More like an accounting ledger than a personal diary. Which explains my surprise when I opened it and saw the first page:

A JOURNAL OF READINGS,
(MAINLY THEOLOGICAL)

B. Myers.
July 2002 to July 2004

If you had told me that such a book existed I would never have believed you. I pride myself on being a thoroughly careless, disorderly, haphazard sort of reader. As a matter of principle I allow my reading to be guided by a certain prodigious laziness. I read whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it. I can re-read the same book a hundred times. I can devour an author's complete works in a spasm of devotion and then, as long as I live, never give another moment's thought to that writer or any of their books. I am not the kind of person who keeps a record of the books I read. Would you keep an orderly account of all the occasions in your life when you have sung songs, or drunk wine, or made love? Reading belongs to the domain of the spirit; it is not groceries, not income and expenditure, not the sort of thing that belongs in a black A4 ledger. 

Yet there it was, as plain as day. My own handwriting staring back at me. I had recorded the title of every book I read for two years, and (what is worse) documented my opinions about each one after reading it. I must have been 24, newly married, a student, pimples on my chin, somewhere halfway between a man and a boy. And in those two years I somehow managed to record – I have just counted them – 163 books, 163 sovereign verdicts on the quality of those authors' writing and the correctness of their Views.

It must have been a feverish couple of years. It must have taken a toll on my eyesight. It must have been the time in my life when I first discovered that I could not see the road at night when driving. The first time I drove the car on to the footpath and sat there, bewildered, squinting through the windscreen and trying to find the edges of the road. My astonished surprise when the optometrist handed me my first pair of glasses and all of a sudden the world became clear as a movie, all the edges of things glistening, sharp as knives.

What led me to that bespectacled state? What prompted me to sacrifice my eyesight at such a tender age, reading books all day and (one must presume) staying up half the night to finish them?

Thumbing through the diary I see that mostly it was Karl Barth, all the volumes of Church Dogmatics and anything else I could get my hands on, as well as dozens upon dozens of impressive-sounding tomes of Reformed theology. Seventeenth-century treatises on predestination. A thicket of dull studies in science and religion. Whole truckloads of T. F. Torrance, Emil Brunner, Anselm, Descartes, and every few pages another one by Barth. And Plato – lots of Plato. I never knew I ever read so much Plato, or liked it so well, or that Plato and Karl Barth had ever been so close together in my mind, growing up side by side like two trees in a garden.

I steal a sideways glance at the scribbled notes. Most of it I can't bear to read. It is always disappointing to discover what a pompous arse you are, how sure of yourself, how confident in your own abilities, how easily you pass judgment on good and bad, truth and error, wrong and right.

Opinion is a beggarly thing; I should have learned as much from Plato if I'd been paying attention. 

Is my 24-year-old self really the right person to be assuring you that a certain critique of St Augustine is "perfectly convincing", or that the climactic scene in Seneca's Oedipus is "poorly executed", or that Moltmann's small-print sections in Theology of Hope are "learned and acute", or that Clark Pinnock is too self-absorbed to be interesting,  or that Bernard Ramm's prose style is one of the most "shamefully incompetent" spectacles in modern theology?

At a few points I see glimmers of promise. Observations that are simpler, more objective and serene, a little less pretentious. Like the single-sentence summary of Augustus Strong's The Great Poets and Their Theology: "He reveres Shakespeare & loathes Goethe." Or the verdict on Hans Schwarz's Creation: "Lots of science, not much theology." Or the description of "the pleasant lack of nervousness and anxiety" in Anselm's writing. Or the observation that Plato's genius is encapsulated in a remark of Socrates to Euthyphro: "Come, then, let us examine what we are saying."

There are mysteries in this diary too, peculiar dimensions of myself that I can no longer access. One note begins with the apology: "In the midst of many more pressing matters, I had time only to read the first half." More pressing matters? Many? Here I was sitting around all day reading 163 books – recording them in an A4 diary – and still I imagined that somewhere in my life there were things that could be described as "pressing"? 

Or there is the mystery of retrospective vision, a thing that is always so enchanting about one's own old diaries. That the bits I thought were important turn out to be irrelevant, while the bits I thought were trivial turn out to be of huge significance. That's how I feel when I notice the January 2004 entry for Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? I still remember where I was the day I read that book. I remember the impression it made on me, days later, the way it shook me, the way I kept turning it over in my mind for weeks, years afterwards. Yet in a diary where even the most pedantic monograph and the most boorish piece of Calvinist propaganda is honoured with its own meticulous description and review, Balthasar's Dare We Hope is noted – just the title – without a single word of comment.

The most arresting feature of this diary, however, is the way it documents an entire philosophy of reading. This philosophy of reading – let's call it the Reading Mirror – takes it for granted that the whole purpose of books is to reflect back to ourselves our own preferences, assumptions, and opinions. My 24-year-old self sums this up rather bluntly on 6 December 2002, noting – after reading Donald Bloesch's Theology of Word and Spirit – how satisfying it is "to find someone with whose views I feel I can almost entirely agree."

Isn't that where so much of our reading goes wrong? We turn to books, lots of books, looking always for the same thing: ourselves. And we end up finding just what we were looking for. The ego remains at the centre, absorbing other minds and worlds into itself.

There is a whole approach to education that uses books like this. Good books are the ones that share my prejudices and affirm my experiences; bad books are the ones that are strange to me, books full of alien prejudices and remote experiences, books that offend my sense of being at the centre. On these terms even the best books become unfruitful. The seed falls on stony ground; it springs up momentarily but withers, having no roots. 

But the seed that falls on good soil brings forth grain – some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

I have laid the diary back in the bottom drawer. I will leave it there with the other orphans – the papers, files, notebooks, scrawled addresses, unanswered letters, the detritus of a life. Perhaps one day, ten years from now, I will discover it again. Perhaps then it will surprise me all over again, once I have forgotten that it exists, once I have ceased to believe that such a person who read those books and wrote those things could ever have existed. That's the thing about old diaries. I close the drawer. The house is quiet as I go back to my chair and to my book.

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