Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eleven Good Reads: J.S. Porter's Spirit Book Word

The onslaught of digital culture has led many to fear both the end of book culture and the end of literacy as we know it. In the recent couple decades writers great and small have penned homages to the experience of reading, to the tactility and presence of the book in the reader's hands, and many of these homages have more than a little of the swan song about them. The tone of farewell is perhaps not unreasonable given the new technologies and the shoddy standard of literacy that prevails among millions now graduating from North American universities. But how impress upon those who live by "tweets" and YouTube just what is being lost?

J.S. Porter's small volume Spirit Book Word is just the kind of slap awake that's needed. Better than anyone I know of, Porter gets you inside the rollercoaster ride of danger and elation that is the essence of serious reading. If indeed books can change both individual lives and the very shape of the world--and who, looking at examples as diverse as the Koran, the Gospels, or the works of Karl Marx, would deny it?--Porter evokes the experience of being shaken in the first-person. What does it mean to take up a great work and be temporarily, or perhaps permanently, remade by the vision the writer offers within?

Spirit Book World is arranged as ten meditations on ten writers that have meant the world to Porter. Each meditation is an attempt to explain the import of a single word in the given writer's work and vision. And so, writing on D.H. Lawrence, Porter elucidates the word quick in Lawrence's work; writing on Clarice Lispector, he uses the word strange as a bridge across which one may approach Lispector's dangerously decentering narratives; with Raymond Carver, the word is love. Such a critical method may sound facile, and could easily be so with a less gifted reader, but Porter writes like a man in a terrible hurry--hurried by the need to make you experience what he has in his ten love affairs with his ten chosen writers.

"A man in a terrible hurry"--this doesn't sound quite right, since, as we know, those in a terrible hurry make a mess of things. But reading Porter at one point, in his opening chapter, made me think of the proverb Still waters run deep, and how, indeed, the proverb is usually true. Usually true. We know that still waters run deep, and that those who are staccato or loquacious--in other words fast--run shallow, are shallow. Porter's style is eccentric in this regard: it is both deep and fast, something that, at least as regards water, one doesn't encounter in nature. His sentences tend to be short, pugilistic even, but there is a concrete depth of reference, at times a great lyricism, at others pathos, at others a learned shorthand. Spirit Book Word reads quickly, in a conversational manner, and yet it reaches great depths.

One may put my statement to the test by looking at his chapter on Heidegger. The ten writers Porter takes up in order are Carver, Kristjana Gunnars, Flannery O'Connor, Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Heidegger, Dennis Lee, George Grant, and Thomas Merton. The German philosopher stands out in this list: as I read through Porter's chapters in order, I could only keep wondering how his approach could possibly do justice. Not that Heidegger is somehow a greater figure than Carver or Dickinson, but there is such a breadth of background to Heidegger's work, the millennia-spanning web of Western metaphysics he struggled to think himself out of--how could Porter, with his conversational rhythm, hope to bring the reader near what Heidegger was up to? But he somehow manages to cut right to the chase: if fifteen pages is all you have to introduce Martin Heidegger, I challenge anyone to get at more of the gist in such a compelling way.

Porter tells of his own introduction to Heidegger's thought, in part through reading the philosopher, in part through George Steiner, in part through being attentive to language in Heidegger's careful way. Here are a few sentences by way of sample of Porter's hands-on approach:

Then, while at work on my poetic documentary of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, published in 1988 as The Thomas Merton Poems, I found myself lapsing into Heideggerian theory. Perhaps the best way to understand Heidegger was to do Heidegger, linguistically perform him and apply him to my own work.

In an unconscious echo of Heidegger and a poet he admired, Stefan George, I wrote, "There is no thing / without the entwining word . . . There is no returning / to the moment of / precopulation . . ." In defiance of current theories that to overcome human alienation one had to jettison language, I seemed intuitively to stand with Heidegger: that there is no Being in human form without language. While language, particularly when clad in calculative thought, can distance us from Being, language can also bring us closer, when poetically realized, to Being.

In Heidegger, language comes from poetry--in Emerson's phrase, language is "fossil poetry"--and thought comes out of language.
Porter is very serious about the books to which he would introduce us. He introduces us to them as he would introduce us to a good friend, somewhat reluctantly perhaps because he knows we may not like them. And besides, these particular friends are not to be messed around with:
I come to a book shyly, as I would to a temple. I open it as I would a snake-basket. I'm not sure of the exact nature of the reptile, but I know it might be dangerous, even lethal. I wait expectantly, patiently, for the bite. I pray that it may be life-altering.
How many people are there who can share in this approach to books?
It's hard to find someone to talk to. Hard and getting harder. Can I find a way of speaking to you that makes you care about [these writers]?
Porter ends with a chapter assessing how the growth of digital technologies may be destroying the experience he knows, may be alienating us from the Spirit he has sensed through literature encountered in the book. He is at times pessimistic, at others hopeful: "I go on then with the faith that the Spirit moves mysteriously; it can straddle a computer chip as it can ride a robin." Recognizing with George Grant that "the given overwhelms the made," that "we ourselves are more given than made," Porter wagers that no technology or particular regime will be able to completely erase our perception of this fact. Whether one agrees or not, we have here in any case one of the most crucially important questions.

Spirit Book Word will introduce most readers to at least a few writers new to them. Myself I think of people for whom to buy the book: friends who love reading, others who are perhaps on the way to loving reading. Porter has the odd persuasive power of a man speaking directly to you, willing to tell you straight out what matters most to him, in a sometimes strained and euphoric tone, at others more quiet and measured, but on most pages with the rare quality I tried to suggest above: both fast-moving and deep.

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