I just finished reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions, a classic weighing in at a relatively modest 682 pages. I don’t remember when I started it, though at best guess it was sometime around April or May. That’s a good 5 plus months, though I must subtract from those the six weeks in America, where I didn’t even have the book, having decided that when packing for two adults and two little girls, heavy books are the first thing to be jettisoned. Nonetheless, not exactly a blistering pace.
There was a time when I devoured books in a mad rush to read more than anyone else. When you spend too much time inside universities, you quic
kly realize that the only way to prove you are smarter than everyone else is by the number of books you can cite and arcane facts you can remember. And there was a time when I could cite more than anyone. But reading a lot is not the same as understanding a lot, and the truth is that it was only after I got out of the university and started living and experiencing things on my own that I began to understand anything about life. Interestingly, as I get older and I feel like I understand life better, the less I read.
I had always loved the big books from the 1800s as a student, and I even wrote some very snooty-sounding papers about Realism, but for a long time now, I have been on an exclusive diet Balzac, Tolstoy, Fielding, and others. It takes me months and months to plod through them. My wife looks over at the books in dismay and asks me if I’m still reading them. Sooner or later I will finish, but it’s going to take me a while. Two little girls are one of the big reasons why, but honestly, a bigger reason is simply that I don’t have that urgent need to finish them anymore. I’m no longer in the race to have read the most. In fact, many of the books I read now are not even new to me. I’m in a phase of re-reading.
What does this all mean, I ask myself? When we decided to move to Levanto, we wanted to have a simpler life, but by being simple, we never meant it to be less rich. On the contrary, the conflation of complexity with richness is a mistake … just look at the difference between the improbably complex American menus and the wonderfully simple Italian food. Richness comes in many forms, and the possibility of slowing life down and enjoying it, focusing on things of substance, getting to know about places and people in depth, challenging ourselves to be creative … this, for us in this moment, is richness.
And so for the last 5 months I have followed with great pleasure and great attention, night after night, Lucien Chardon de Rubempré during his cosmopolitan exploits in Paris. I have enjoyed Lost Illusions and understood it more this time around than I ever could have when I first read it as an elitist and simpering graduate student 15 years ago. And if it takes me five months to do so, then all the better.
Next up, Bleak House. At 982 pages, a true heavyweight. By the time I finish it, I may be well into next summer’s tan. But in the meantime, there are lots of other things to be doing. After all, books aren’t really that important. Life is.