Thursday, January 22, 2015

Active Shadows of a Writer's Life

My Unwritten BooksMy Unwritten Books 
by George Steiner

"A book unwritten is more than a void.  It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful."  - George Steiner

In Alberto Manguel's wonderful compendium of libraries, The Library at Night, he writes:
"We can imagine the books we'd like to read, even if they have not yet been written, and we can imagine libraries full of books we would like to possess, even if the are well beyond our reach, because we enjoy dreaming up a library that reflects every one of our interests and every one of our foibles--a library that, in its variety and complexity, fully reflects the reader we are."

This idea, and I share his feelings along with the distress of finding books that I would love to have in my library but are too dear for my pocketbook, as expressed in the line "even if they have not yet been written" leads me to a wonderful book that is in my library, My Unwritten Books by George Steiner; described as a "grand master of erudition", he is a both polymath and eclectic as a thinker and writer of prose, both fictional and non-fictional.
In My Unwritten Books he imagines seven books that he did not write, but would have written if only he had not met some insurmountable physical, intellectual or psychological obstacle that prevented him from doing so. The essays describing these books are mini-books in themselves with excursions into such disparate worlds as the multiple languages of sex, the claims of Zionism, the natures of exile and a theology of emptiness.

My favorite among the essays is his personal excursion into the nature of education, "School Terms". Beginning with his own anarchic education that saw the onset of his school life with three languages while studying in Manhattan and France. All this before spending his university years at the University of Chicago and Harvard and completing his graduate work at Oxford. He contrasts the differences between education in France (orderly) and America (anarchic) and moves on to a brief commentary on some of the changes that these systems, especially in Great Britain are currently undergoing. With a flick of his pen, he highlights educational philosophies and movements from Locke and Rousseau through the battle between humanities and science of C. P. Snow whose polemics he decries. But this is used as a catalyst for his own thoughts on education. We must first consider what literacy means in our technological age with the immanent rise of "artificial intelligence" and the ubiquity of the Internet.

Steiner concludes that "the hope of preserving or resuscitating humanistic literacy in any traditional mode" is illusory. Yet, he goes on to suggest a "Utopian" plan or outline of a core curriculum that will provide to arouse the "awareness interactive with the demands and fascination of the world". (p 151)
He calls this plan a new "quadrivium" of mathematics, music, architecture, and the life sciences. Aimed at challenging the senses to "embody an incommensurable potential for fun, play, and aesthetic delight. Homo ludens is enlisted to the turbulent heart of his being." (p 159) 
This is heady stuff as Utopian plans often are. But it is exciting and challenging as George Steiner engages with the reader in sharing ideas in these notes for his "unwritten books". For even greater stimulation I would encourage readers to engage in his written books. His works are part of my own partially realized ideal library. By this I mean the sort of ideal that is characterized best by Alberto Manguel in another of his fascinating books, A Reader on Reading, where he writes:

"The ideal library is meant for one particular reader. Every reader must feel that he or she is the chosen one." "The ideal library (like every library) holds at least one line that has been written exclusively for you."

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner.  New Directions Books, 2006.
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel.  Yale University Press, 2006.
A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel.  Yale University Press, 2010.


Brian Joseph said...

I love musings on books and on reading and writing. These essays sound so good.

I am now thinking about what books would be in my ideal library.

Parrish Lantern said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book although my favourite Steiner is After Babel

James said...

I enjoyed both of those books but consider Steiner's tour de force Antigones to be my favorite.