Tuesday, July 06, 2010


One of the dirty little secrets hiding within the secret hearts of even the most dedicated of readers resides in the room designated as 'Unread Books'. Oh, the shame! To reach a certain age, to have lived a life centred around the printed word that leaps off of the page and onto our eyes and into our brains, and yet never to have sampled Remembrance Of Things Past! Or The Tempest! Or most of, the best of, Tolstoy!

Having delved deeper and deeper into Norman Mailer after an absence of a good many years, I was struck by his admiration of Tolstoy, with Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's masterwork, being deemed 'a modern day War and Peace' by one generous critic. (What the ungenerous critics proclaimed is better left silent.) Off to the bookstore I went, and out of the bookstore came me, arms stuffed with cheap editions of Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Moby Dick. (Not Tolstoy, no, but another honourable inhabitant of that 'Unread Book' domicile.)

Living in Japan often means spending the great majority of one's days standing on trains. You can either think, listen, or read. I prefer to read. One can read a lot on trains, if you get on early enough, when it's relatively isolated and empty, or in the middle of the day, when the rest of the Japanese world remains shuddered in office silence.

How odd! To be a Canadian, reading a Russian book from the 19th century, translated into English, while riding to work in Japan! And everything still somehow comes through. Across the centuries leap notions of logic and love, religion and sacrifice, that seem as modern, if not more modern, than the very relationships that prop us up at the beginning of this 21st century. Outside the second most successful economy in the world buzzes and hummes, and inside a metal tube I speed along, reading words that were written by a Russian gentlemen on pen and paper more than a hundred-odd years ago.

And how odd this is, no? I'm still amazed, if not grateful, for the mysterious nature of the written word, how one man's thoughts -- those ephemeral, intangible nothings that float about our brains! -- can somehow be rendered in little symbols that stab into my heart from across a distant time and space. Who declares telepathy mere fancy? And to have these letters than transmorphed into other letters from another language that signify something different -- but the same! -- so that the effect intended is the effect produced. I don't get it. But it somehow gets me, repeatedly.

More weeks of trainriding lie ahead, the tracks spreading out north, south, east, west, circling and enveloping and criss-crossing Tokyo and Yokohama like a wave of water that hems me in. If I can keep bringing onboard these metal contraptions my daily limit of words and paper, bound together, thoughts encapsulated and shot acr0ss time, I will remain happily trapped.