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Amber Paulen

Henry Miller - The Books in My Life (and Piconho).

Henry Miller

The Books in My Life

There are times to read and there are times not to read. It was during a period of the latter that I picked up Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life. Instead of continuing, it would have done me some good to stop and think about the following found between the first few pages:

The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital.

Yes, I agree! Especially when books are concerned. Picking out a book to read is for me a careful balancing process. One book at a time, that’s how I go, always aware if I am getting the proper nourishment.

But back to the first time I picked up The Books in My Life by Henry Miller. We were driving the breadth of the grand ole USA for the first time. We slept in our tent, took showers in sinks and creeks, we drove through uninviting terrain, shat in forests, we watched the straight arrow of the road roll and roll, the perpetual white lines and yellow rolling out from beneath our tires as if they were the only ones aware of our destination. The sun set every new night in the direction we were headed and rose every new morning in the direction we had come from. No, do not bring any book for reading on a road trip that defines and describes an opening chapter in one’s life. No, it’s best not to read any books. Take naps among shade trees, go for long walks along tow paths, walk barefoot in shallow streams, watch the stars travel by night and the clouds that travel by day, watch the great expanse of land as it blurs outside the open window.

One of the results of this self-examination—for that is what the writing of this book amounts to—is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more.

Though most of the words passed through my mind like Sahara sand passes in a Sirocco, I did retain something, a couple names: Jean Giono and John Cowper Powys ; I did soak up, in a very will-o’-the-wisp way, what with this book Henry Miller was trying to say. As it happens, this recent reading was absolutely perfectly timed and I sped through his words as if I could divine them.

Always, what endears me to this writer of a man, this giant of honesty and truth, is his inability to keep secrets, his inability to stick with the plot. Anybody who has ever read anything by Henry Miller will know which writers he has revered. The extensive quoting and praising of authors and books is absolutely thrilling to me, that long song to Elie Faure in Plexus, his continued mention of Dostoevsky, Blaise Cendrars, Knut Hamsun, Thoreau, the Chinese sages, has fueled many adventures in books, fruitful or not. For Henry Miller nothing eclipses over, all is integrated, there is no difference between the experiences gained through books and those through living, all is fuel, all is life.

It is Henry Miller, always in mind, that gives me the substance for my “reading notes”; very careful am I not to let them degenerate into the ugly book review. I once read on a book review site that the reviewer being interviewed found it much easier to write about books not liked, boring books, bad books, than to write about books that were thoroughly enjoyed. Such a statement blew my mind! Can you imagine? I can’t imagine wasting words on books that do not touch me, wasting reading time plugging away at books that are as nourishing as cardboard. Why speak anything less than the open song of what you are feeling? Such is what Henry Miller teaches. Never anything less than effluent. Many times in the beginning of The Books in My Life he claims that it will be a series to span volumes.

So often throughout The Books in My Life does Henry Miller state that the reading of books is an “event” in one’s life, that the true purpose of reading books is to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater, higher activity and richer being. He often illustrates that the thought of a past reading, the thought of a book even, can bring thoughts and memories, not only of the book and the “events” within, but of events that were occurring in his own life at the same time; then there unravels a grand tangent threaded together with the fragile string of memory. Life and reading have become intermeshed. Perhaps that is another reason to write: to return something back to the eternal pool.

For the good reader, like the good author, knows that everything stems from the same source. He knows that he could not participate in the author’s private experience were he not composed of the same substance through and through.

The Books in My Life was a very intimate book. More than any other book by Henry Miller I had the feeling that he was sitting direct across from me expounding on a long-winded thought. It is buttressed in the center by a long letter to Pierre Lesdain expatiating on the two sides of the same coin, Dostoevsky and Walt Whitman ; flanked at the end with the satirical “Reading in the Toilet” and the beautifully flowing chapter on the theatre; sprinkled throughout with all those hints and bits of “Influences”; the book breaks always into tangents which surface on an indelible subject and shine onto it pure light.

As I read on I began to wonder for the first time if Henry Miller was not as he claimed Blaise Cendrars to be: a writers’ writer. I know that he has many fans that span many occupations and his words awaken regardless, but there are many many passages in every single book that shoot to the quick of my desire to create in words. To read a lot of Henry Miller is to know without a doubt that I have been destined for “more,” and though that may sound very egotistical, I know it to be simply an answer to his calling and not Henry Miller’s calling but that calling he once answered to like so many have who went before.

More than any other writer Henry Miller gives writers, creators, so much life-blood to feast on, so many chiseled and crystallized thoughts of what creation is and what writing is that I can never stop swimming in the communion.

To read is as vital an experience as anything, meant to augment what one has experienced and wants to experience, to learn and to know and already knows. I read because I cannot not read, because my fingers tingle to be dipped into the stream, to share what has been shared and what will continue to be shared for as long as the word can speak. I read because there I find the questions to my questions and the answers to my answers. I read because it is another form of communion: Take, drink, remember and believe that this is the blood of Christ.

Whoso has the power to affect us more and more deeply each time we read him is indeed a master, no matter what his name, rank or status be.

If you really must know, The Books in My Life says many of the same things that Henry Miller has said already. But these are good things, true things and worthy of much repetition.

First and last things. But no first and no last. Always from the center outward. Always the spiral motion: never the straight line, never sharp angles, never the impasse or cul-de-sac.


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