I am suffocated by tottering towers of books to be read, and amazingly worthy and interesting books half-read, and the depressing realisation that I will in all likelihood never get to the bottom of my self-prescribed reading list. Up until recently, though, the only challenge was to find time to consume the written word. Now, in this age of information overload and a world of knowledge contained within my mobile technology, I can’t ‘just’ read the book.
This weekend finds me surfacing from the extraordinary experience of reading Marguerite Yourcenar‘s Memoirs of Hadrian. One of those books that pulls our own humanity sharply into focus, and the full appreciation of which demands a classical education that my generation sadly lack. Even a decade ago this would have been a problem: but in the Wikipedian Age I can, of course, find out pretty much everything I want to know at the instant I want to know it, and before my single decaf espresso has cooled. So I have this week virtually mapped out and visited the territories of the Roman Empire, and have identified the modern-day states existing in their place today. I have googled personages and dates. I have retrieved images of statues and medallions. And I have followed up innumerable links to commentaries and essays which in turn have led to other fascinating discoveries. The book (like all great books) is a portal of discovery, but I look back on the time spent in the discovery process, and wonder how on earth I am finding time to do this when I am pressed for time to shop and cook a meal.
Nor am I even sure all this dipping in and out of Wikipedia is a good thing for a dilettante like me. I can justify it easily enough (lack of classical education, feeds my art etc. etc.) but in truth whilst it’s satisfying a genuine curiosity, I feel sometimes it’s just a welcome diversion from a page of densely packed text. I have always been an avid reader, but these days I find it increasingly difficult to read a full page without my mind wandering. I express surprise that kids don’t seem to have three-hour exams any more, and yet I’m not convinced I could sit a three hour exam now if I had to.
It’s a slightly unsettling idea. A great classic work of fiction encountered in the flit-flit manner of a 21st century reader. I don’t think my reading of the book has done it justice; it called for an intense, undistracted, sensual appreciation of the language and phrasing, and I’ve sort of rattled through it. But I can at least now point to Dacia on the map.