Wandering around Holborn this lunchtime I found myself in Waterstone’s and browsing the entire shop. I will be 36 tomorrow and had decided to treat myself to something.
Trouble was I didn’t know what. Looking over the fiction shelves was merely a reminder of how many books I already have but have not yet read. I could imagine the devil on my shoulder cackling down: “what, you think you’re going to live forever or something? You’ll never read what you’ve already got, and now you want more? Sheesh.” And in the end that devil won out.
We read fiction to both reinforce and extend our world view, I think. We are of a certain mindset, more or less, and look for authors who speak to that mindset, then give us something we haven’t already considered. Or put another way, we take their work and put ourselves into it.
So when I read Jim Dodge’s fantastic “Not Fade Away” again I know that I’m dealing with a writer who shares a lot of my own values, telling a story that I am going to enjoy listening to in a way I wouldn’t if it were written by someone I don’t like or agree with. Philip Roth taps into my, ahem, hidden male and sees the world through that particular lense: it’s not me in those stories, but he’s taking a part of me and putting it into another universe, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out (in real life – if you’re in any way reasonable – you can’t do some of the things Roth’s characters do, but it’s a good window into what it might be like to try). John Updike’s Rabbit books are an excruciating portrait of a narcissistic twerp, but luckily for me I read them at my most narcissisticly twerpish phase and realised that it perhaps wasn’t just me who had it in him to be like this, gave myself a break and ended up back on a path that leads me to where things are now. John Updike really did change my life. Edward Abbey’s characters have similar beliefs to me, but while I think it’s a shame about the environment, they destroy building sites and blow up dams to make their point more forcefully. Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is so well written as to again make me feel I could be him. So I read Marlowe and thrill to his ups and downs. It’s true: I wish I were him.
Reading – if you choose the right books – does this. There is a eurotrance band called Oceanlab who have a song that contains the line “and it feels like me, on a good day” (a phrase since copied/borrowed by a company selling anti-flatulence tablets, I think), and that’s about it, taking the character traits you value in yourself and stretching them into another character and another situation and playing the whole thing out expertly. It reassures and excites, and is why I continue to read and continue to buy books, even when the shelves are already double-stacked.
So 36, which finally feels like middle age. (I’m also reading Marcus Berkmann’s excellent “A shed of one’s own”, on this very subject). We have a son, a nice son so far, and we’re pleased about that. I have an alrightish job, I cycle to work a couple of times a week (and therefore get the exercise that keeps me sane) and I’m still able to watch Fulham with reasonable frequency.
(Football is odd, in that it’s at once far less important (it doesn’t really matter what happens) and just as all-consuming as it has been. It’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of a modern footballer like you might a character in your favourite books, so that side of things is tricky. I do think this explains Roy Hodgson’s appeal – Roy had a lot going for him that I admired and wanted to take in, too – and perhaps Martin Jol’s wishy-washy place in our affections: who is this man?)
So I dunno. Part of becoming what you are (as Juliana Hatfield questioned way back in the 90s) is acceptance and a gradual reversion to what you’ve always been and wanted to be all along. So you start off well when you’re young, do things that are fun and interesting, gradually get bent out of shape by the big mean world for 20 years or so, then go about trying to bend yourself back into the original you (Scott Fitzgerald talked about the same thing in the Great Gatsby, although there was a big difference: his characters didn’t want to get back to what they were; they were desperate to be something else). I think that at 36 the unbending is going quite well, all things considered, and again, this is where the fiction comes in. As you go through this unbending you are guided by the voices of older, wiser people (here, authors), people who can see the human condition for what it is and who can steer you along the road you want to travel down.
Or as DJ Shadow put it on Lost and Found:
Get high get above yourself
Look down upon yourself
Until you’re inside o’ yourself
Look to the front or the back o’ yourself
To the back or front of yourself
It’s inside yourself
And then you see your own head
And know yourself is yourself
’cause when you find yourself
You’re gonna find that yourself
Is only yourself
And the self that can only be yourself
So when you’re in front of the back of yourself
You’re gonna find that your mind
Is in the center of yourself
And god is nothing but yourself
And when you reach for yourself
You’ll know that yourself
Is the only thing that can happen to yourself
So that nothing can put you down
Indeed. In the end I didn’t buy a book. I held Ronald Reng’s Robert Enke biography in my hand for a long time but ultimately put it back. Another day.