We are full of contradictions, are we not? Diligent one moment, listless the next; viewing life with equanimity yesterday, choleric today; thinking seven impossible things before breakfast but still insisting there is only one right way to boil an egg.
I’m a contrary type. To give just one example among many, the one which is the topic for this post: I’m normally a fairly tidy person — everything in its place — meaning I delight in uncluttered rooms, streets free of litter, political positions clearly stated. Dust and debris and detritus offend me; I’m pernickety about recycling in the correct containers; chaotic emotions confuse me.
That’s all well and good … until it comes to books. More specifically the spaces where books accumulate when they’re being used, such as desks and bedside tables. And then the contrariness kicks in, and tidiness goes metaphorically out the window.
Regard the photo of my desk space. Notice the books piled willy-nilly. Ponder the paper on Brontë juvenilia propped upon a pillar of reading matter. Marvel at the Latin dictionary which instead of being bookmarked is opened tent-like, against all propriety. See the pocket diary from 2014 lying there because at some point I consulted it for who knows what purpose. Marvel at the mousemat so bookladen that I can scarcely manipulate the mouse.
It’s the same on my bedside table. I have bookmarks inserted in some books published in the 1920s — E F Benson, Virginia Woolf, James Branch Cabell — as I flit from one to the other however the whim takes me; they sit on top of a Chinese memoir, a Jane Austen study, Moby-Dick, and a couple or more other tomes I’ve started but stalled on.
Flibbertigibbert, that’s me. But you’ll have noticed method in my madness because I’ve mentioned this trait before in previous posts. Books to me are depositories of ideas, and shifting from book to books feeds these ideas into the maelström that is my mind, throwing up disparate ideas from its maw to settle on the shingle of my perception. (Sorry about this rich diet of mixed metaphors.)
Jasper Fforde has this simile about where writers’ ideas come from. He compares the writer’s mind to a spikey ball rolling around a litter of written notes randomly picking up quotes, metaphors and concepts. If one is single-minded about reading or researching, eschewing anything unrelated to the subject in hand, it’s comparable to a ball with one long spike — it’s not going to pick up anything unexpected, indeed it may be so inefficient as to not pick up anything at all. Fforde’s fiction is the epitome of eclectic: contrasting ideas are joined in matrimony, homophones become one and the same notion, chaos gives birth to logic, metaphors become reality.
This is how dreams work. Many are the thinkers and scientists who have come up with a novel insight from the seeming irrationality of a dream image: these are the ‘guessers’, as opposed to the ‘accumulators’; the latter study clods of earth, the former behold the heavens. As Einstein is quoted as saying or writing,
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
We have in fact forgotten the etymological root of the word invention: it comes from the Latin invenire, literally ‘to come upon’ — the idea as it were preexists, it just needs the dreamer to stumble across it. Alternatively, intuition is a spark between two points, and it requires the ‘inventor’ to express the fleeting flash in words or turn it into an object.
So this is how I justify my untidy desk space, or my bedside table topped with teetering titles: by hopping from book to book I contemplate ideas remote in subject brought together in temporal contiguity, and collect unrelated concepts on the spikes of the rolling sphere of my reading. Even publications from the same period in time, chosen to fit in with the 1920s theme of Jazz Age June, chatter to each other despite their differing viewpoints: what a conversation arises from Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), E F Benson’s comedy of manners Queen Lucia (1920) and James Branch Cabell’s fantasy Figures of Earth (1921)! What new vistas will I stumble upon, or new inventions discover, or new intuitions illuminate my consciousness!
Do you too embark on a similar whirlwind literary tour, collecting souvenir labels and sticking them on a virtual suitcase wherever they will go?