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The Environment of Reading
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The Environment of Reading

I’ve been thinking lately that there’s something physical and immediate about the way books have figured in my life. But that physical dimension is elusive and probably pretty eccentric; it’s not really reflected in an incomprehensible-to-me arrangement of electrons, the stuff of our incomprehensible-to-me techno age, but it is connected, in some intimate way, with my own particular sense of self, my own vague sense of being in the world.

Or is my sense of self, archaic as its terms may be, so much mere vanity? Aren’t we all eccentrics, poets no more than anybody else? Perhaps the myth of our individuality is based on a more general myth, without which our treasured selfhood couldn’t exist in the first place: namely that there’s some “center” to be found out there in the human throng—from which we have somehow divagated, as the very etymology of the word eccentric would suggest. It may be just the artist’s solipsism that allows him or her to apply such a term and such a concept to him- or herself and not, say, to the neighbor dentist or plumber or landscaper or physics professor.

Whatever the truth, and however crucial books have been and remain to my own version of personal eccentricity, I was quite emphatically not a bookish boy. The woods and fields of my bachelor uncle’s farm were my encyclopedia, the metaphoric volume in which I could look up, say, how crows quite specifically communicated, as in “Danger! A man!” or, even more specifically and urgently, as in “Great danger! A man with a gun!”

As a father to five myself, I now look back on this with incredulity and horror, but from my ninth year I was set loose as the would-be man with gun; I carried my Remington single-shot .22 rifle, a weapon not much larger than a pistol, wherever I went among those woods and fields.

My father and uncle had one rule, namely that I’d shoot nothing I wouldn’t subsequently eat. (The crows were excluded, since they were mistaken to be more harmful than beneficial to the farm.) Rather than shooting less, however, I simply ate more. I became a resourceful camp cook. I knew the flavor of opossum and coon, and, more exotically, of blue jay and flicker, that last a tasty morsel of red meat, by the way, rather like a woodcock’s, the birds’ diets very similar. I have eaten from a haunch of gray fox. I could go on, but here another sort of taste prevails.

Though I have remained a hunter, I now greatly regret all that senseless carnage. What I don’t regret is a certain awareness that those reckless days engendered. I don’t mean—or don’t only mean—significant competence with [End Page 78] animal habits, with discriminating one tree from another, with recognizing how the components of the natural world interact. It’s a bit hard to explain what I do mean, but I think it has something to do with an analogous capacity to track my own mental processes, the linkages of one impression with a host of others, as if they were something outside of myself, like wildlife signs. If so, then those early years actually did prefigure the rather bookish life I’ve lived as an adult.

Wallace Stevens once described the modern poem as one “of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” I agree, though I have my own view of what it might mean. I’m certain for one thing that this act of finding is not one that merely happens ad hoc: here it is in one poem, here in another, here in yet a third, and so on. Discovery as I see it is a lifelong process, one involving, precisely, self-abandonment to many things outside one’s person, always in search of, always short of, what might alone suffice. I want to get at some of the objects and physical environments of my reading that have, in my case, been weirdly determinative.

I remember...