My life has been guided by literary lights
By age 14 or 15, writes the Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, he had "read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French."
I can make no such claim. I did not become a serious reader until my second year at college. I'm making up for lost time.
I don't read at a distance. I feel a close bond with writers. Take Charles Dickens. "David Copperfield" was his favorite novel, as it is mine. By paragraph six, I knew this was going to be an important book for me.
"I was a posthumous child," says David. "My father's eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months when mine opened on it." I share this experience with David. My eyes opened a month after Father's had closed.
David later becomes homeless. "I remember how I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless." Words I remember when working with homeless New Yorkers.
He is deepened by these experiences. The character Mr. Micawber says of him, "Copperfield ... has a heart to feel for the distresses of his fellow creatures when they are behind a cloud."
Montaigne attracts many readers. He is a favorite writer of Captain Vere in Herman Melville's "Billy Budd." "He loved books," Melville writes of Vere, "never going to sea without a newly replenished library, compact but of the best." Montaigne appeals to Vere as one of those writers "who free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities."
When the French writer Marquis de Custine (1790 to 1857) undertook his travels through Russia, writes Anka Muhlstein in her biography, he took with him "some padlocks, effervescent powders to purify the water, bouillon cubes made for him by Mme. Chevet, the proprietor of the well-known restaurant, and his Montaigne, without which he never left home."
On the wall by my desk at the office I have placed in a frame this line from Montaigne's Essays: "Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately."
But how do we go about doing this? Here is a helpful passage from Montaigne. "To win through a breach, to conduct an embassy, to govern a people, these are dazzling actions.... [T]o deal pleasantly and justly with our household and ourselves, not to let ourselves go, not to be false to ourselves, that is a rarer matter, more difficult and less noticeable."
Scottish lawyer and essayist James Boswell loved the literary life of London. When still a young man, he had Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith to dinner. "I sat with much secret pride," he wrote, "thinking of my having such a company with me. I behaved with ease and propriety, and did not attempt at all to show away.... This evening I have had much pleasure. That is being truly rich."
But Boswell brooded on his failure to achieve success, either in law or politics. His 16-year-old son James, writing to his father, places things in perspective: "Pray, Sir, do not suffer yourself to be melancholy. Think not on your having missed preferment.... [T]hey who have obtained places and pensions ... have not the fame of having been the biographer of Johnson or the conscious exultation of a man of genius. They have not enjoyed your happy and convivial hours.... In short, would you rather than have enjoyed so many advantages have been a rich, though dull, plodding lawyer?"
Being Russian on my mother's side, I feel close to Russian writers. At last count, I have read more than 225 Chekhov short stories - pretty much all his stories translated into English.
Chekhov's father was born a serf, not obtaining his freedom until his teens. Chekhov writes of spending much of his own life squeezing, drop by drop, the slave from himself.
To his younger brother, Misha, he writes: "Why do you refer to yourself as an 'insignificant and inconspicuous little brother?' So you consider yourself insignificant?... Do you know before whom you ought to be conscious of your insignificance? Before God, perhaps the human intellect, beauty, and nature, but not before men. Before men you must be aware of your own worth."
On a train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg he was alone, except, as he wrote, for "dear sweet Anna," Anna being Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." This is a favorite moment for me: Chekhov and Tolstoy sharing a railway carriage.
I feel close to Walt Whitman because of his closeness to New York City. "Mannahatta!" he writes. "How fit a name for America's great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! how aboriginal! how it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphere, vista and action!"
I admire Thoreau - though he's no lover of cities - for his independent spirit and gifts as a writer. In the late afternoon, gazing at the skyline of Fifth Avenue from Central Park, I think of these words of his: "The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance as it has never set before - where there is but a solitary marsh hawk to have his wings gilded by it...."
Books are an important part of my life.