For the past couple of days, I have been relishing a little tome from 1573 in the Rare Books division of my beloved library. It is about the size of a PDA, but infinitely more charming and fascinating. My technology-enamoured friends will probably challenge me on that point, probably listing in the merits of the lastest Blackberry that they are able to "communicate" easily with others. So say I of the book. Does it not present an occasion for conversation between author and reader? This is not a particularly novel idea, I know, but one that has recently been reinforced for me recently in a decidely comical way.
For have you ever had the distinct experience of a book catching you in the act of doing or thinking something very specific? It can be disconcerting to have your mind read by a book, while all the while you thought the reverse was happening. Especially when that book is over four hundred years old. Several days ago, I leafed through the delicate pages of The 21 Epistles of Ovid, "newly" translated into French and scribbled in my notebook nearby - all of the poem titles, illustrations, and page numbers. So as to go back later and investigate in more detail. I was feeling oh-so productive but also time-conscious, since the library was soon to be closing. Suddenly, my eyes fell upon the following verses from the editor Charles Fontaine, addressed to his "dear readers":
Maint bon esprit en ce voyant se fache
De perdre temps, & souvent se contente
Du titltre seul qui a l'oeil presente.
Many a good mind, in seeing this [book] is exasperated
With passing time, and often contents himself
With only the title that presents itself to the eye.
It's hard enough to translate the verses, much less the feeling of being caught bloody-handed by a complete stranger several centuries old. The fact of the matter is, human nature hasn't changed much since the 16th. Impatient skimmers will always be. Now, some situations call for riffling rather than depth, of course. But Fontaine's admonition is timeless nonetheless, and brought me up short. Laughing ruefully at myself for falling into such a typical trap, I continued on, making an effort to savor rather than rush.
There is a fairy tale that is flitting through my mind in bits and pieces...something about a damsel wanting to skip through the boring parts of her life. In reponse to her plea, she is given a spool of golden thread by her fairy godmother, who warns her not to pull the thread unless absolutely necessary. You can see where this is going. Of course she gets impatient, and pulls it almost immediately. Just a little bit, and her life advances to when she is a happy young married woman. What joy! But the novelty soon wears off, and she pulls it again, but harder. She has many beautiful children. When they start to squawk and irritate her, she grabs for her golden thread yet again. Soon, she is old, gray, and regretful that she ever laid hands on the spool, for her life will soon be over and she has little or no meaning attached to those years.
I've been thinking about my own life, and wondering what my spool of golden thread is. We are only given a finite number of hours in our life, and yet I am often tempted to lay hold of an activity just to kill time. The Internet provides me with the majority of tugs on the thread. Youtube, facebook, google image search, you name it. I also fall back on crosswords, snacking purely out of boredom, and TV. It is true that we all need down time, but meaningful activity can be found in the realms of both leisure and labor. My (very human) problem is that even when I am engaged in these, I find my attentions wandering, "exasperated with passing time." Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote:
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Uh, can anyone say "myspace"? Oh, that I could find that "still point in the turning world", that place of contentment more often! But this world is not friendly to those who wish to stand still. While waiting for a friend yesterday, for example, I was obliged to try to remain stationary on a busy Parisian sidewalk for about five minutes. Impossible. The result was a barrage of dirty looks and jostlings. No one will be still, nor let another be still. The excuse?
We don't "have time".