Reading at Random


W. S. Merwin in 1997 answered a fan letter I had written him. Among other things, he wrote this:

Read, read. Jarrell said "read at random". It will stop being random.
I have carried this advice with me ever since, but in checking the letter just now, I see that my memory somewhere along the way tricked me into thinking the "read at random" part was Merwin's own phrase, not a quote from Randall Jarrell. I haven't been able to locate the quote itself on the web or in my Bartlett's, so I will have to trust Merwin's memory of it.

Lately I have morphed the "read at random" concept to where any stray suggestion is enough to start me on a book. On St. John, the propietor of a painted-clothing store named Sloop Jones spontaneously gave me a fading paperback book, Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from Creole and French in 1997--which I see now is the year Merwin wrote me the letter. (Calm down, blogger boy, it's only a coincidence.) The novel recreates a threatened Martinique shantytown named Texaco, and I have not been able to stop reading it, even though its pace is often too slow for my jumpy mind, and I want to move on to other books in my TBR pile. In this passage, Felicite Nelta brings a healer, Papa Totone, to help Nelta's lover and the book's protagonist, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, rediscover the life in her eyes:
in Papa Toton, Nelta had perceived a power--a bit like the one you feel when great storytellers tell their tale, or when the men of power appear in your life at a time of bad luck that the church can't fix. (p. 265)
I feel shy admitting how randomness prompted my latest purchase. I read in today's Financial Times about a book titled The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold 22 million copies, more than twice the hardback total for The Da Vinci Code. I was surprised I'd never heard of it, and that element of surprise was enough to prompt me to buy a copy on my way to a meeting downtown. I was running late, so I grabbed the book and paid for it without reading the cover, only to find as I left the bookstore that the author is pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Uh-oh. We're not in the land of high literature blurbed by Derek Walcott--"a great book has been written," he wrote of Texaco-- anymore. No, we have Billy Graham touting this one. But the frontpiece, wouldn't you know, contains this bold (albeit self-serving) ode to the divine power of randomness:
This book is dedicated to you. Before you were born, God planned THIS MOMENT in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book. God LONGS for you to discover the life he created you to live...
Now, if W.S. Merwin had written this to me in a letter, substituting a bit of Zen for the God parts, I would have swallowed it whole.

I love Merwin. I love the very idea of Merwin--his sojourns in France, his living by his writing outside of academia, his wispy white hair, his lush garden on Maui, his arch environmentalism. I have set him up as an icon for my love of writing, my longed-for home in the world of letters. In the nine years since I left a corporate job to write, I have ridden a Harley, then a Vespa, and now a Segway. I named each one Merwin, because each took me where I wanted to go in style. William Merwin--and Alvaro Cardona-Hine, who introduced me to his poems--are men of power who appeared in my life at a time of bad luck that neither my corporate job nor the church could fix.

I am reading at random, living at random. Although I believe there will be a time when reading and living stop being random, I am in no hurry for that day to come.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


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