I’ve long known and said that I am a much better canvas and sponge than a writer. I used to devour books by the hundreds every year, until I realized it was all I wanted to do in life – read books. That’s it. And since it was such an unambitious goal to spend a lifetime over, I gave up. I wouldn’t pick up a single book that really interested me. Not one. Not even my favourite wodehouse. My preferences over the last few years subtly changed, to reading books where each page would drain me out. Short stories or really long novels – those were the only two type of books I found myself reading. Borges, Faulkner, Munroe, Davis, Manto.
And then I found essays. In the good ol days, they called blogs essays – and since no one could afford self publication, an essay could be called a ‘piece’. I have been collecting essays like a mad collector having an obsessive compulsive disorder. I think I shall write about some of my favourite essays here – with some lines I loved.
Quite near the top of the list is Joan Didion, that remarkably beautiful woman who could see my soul before I was even born. Everything she writes describes me in one or the other way. She has a book on death, on loss of a loved one, which is one of my favourite possessions – she is in some way totally different to the other woman author I adore who can see my soul- I have never laughed at a line by didion – and she produces beautiful titles for her books – the book on death is called The year of Magical Thinking. Could anyone come up with a title for a book where she mourns the death of her husband for a year after he died? Magical thinking indeed.
My favourite piece by Didion is called On Self Respect published 50 years ago in Vanity fair magazine, which I have already written about. Self respect is something I have struggled with all my adult life, and she made it possible for me to verbalize what precisely I was struggling with. I am getting better at it, but it still doesn’t come naturally to me.
But today I want to quote lines from another essay of hers – a beautiful read in all its entirety – published in a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem almost 50 years ago. It’s called On Keeping a Notebook.
I envy those who never feel the need to write – but I never knew why – she sums it up beautifully for me.
Then this one – my favourite of this piece –
But isn’t memory a curse? If you had to choose between having a very good memory or a very poor one – which would you choose? An accurate memory of the recollection of things as they were. No difference between your experiencing self and your remembering self. Would you want it? Because the lucky ones slowly rose-tint the worst of the events – it’s akin to forgiving oneself and the other.
But there’s one very interesting interpretation in her essay – does it matter whether our memory is true or not? I often get terribly surprised at the turn of events when I discuss the past with my parents. Say they went to a trip to dubai. They call me up angry – someone fleeced them. They come back home, mad at the perceived injustice of the trip. 2 years later, when we talk about that trip, they have zero recollection of their problems. All they remember is – it was a wonderful experience, how beautiful was the Abu dhabi mosque, wasn’t it?
Just how could it be? Could it be denial? Didion has a take on this which says the distinction is immaterial. The distinction between what actually happened and what you think happened.
For me – for what has gone on in my life – whatever is in my head – is malleable. I could choose to remember a different version of things at different moments of time – depending upon who I am at that moment. And it wouldn’t be phony – it would be a different piece which fits THIS jigsaw that I am.
History is written by the winners. There are only versions of history. So I could simply change history to be better off. As someone said – it is never too late to have a happy childhood.