Giorgio Agamben

Men Who Read

Surveys show that more women than men read books, but lately two men have inspired me, Geoffrey, 87 and Jimmy, who is 26.
     At lunch the other day, as Geoffrey and his wife and I sticked our way through the tasty and neatly arranged contents of our Bento boxes, he talked about his interest in the World Wars. He grew up in London and his father participated in both WWI and WWII.  But it isn't his devotion to the subject that inspires me. WWII is an apparently endless source of material for fiction and non-fiction writers, some brilliant, some ordinary. New books on some aspect of the war every season, and in my own reading, I'd like to turn the page. So no, it is not what he reads so much as his approach to reading that stimulates. Most recently he has been working his way through Harold MacMillan's memoirs, particularly Blast of War, and also just finished Martin Amis's latest, Zone of Interest. Now he is going back over the Amis novel and making a list of images he intends to compare with The Iliad. He does not just consume a book, but seems to plot it on his perceived course of human intellectual and social development.  Considering how writers as diverse as Homer and Martin Amis described it, how has our view of war changed, is the question I think he is asking.
     Jimmy, on the other hand, is just beginning his exploration of the intellectual/social graph of our times. A theatre school grad, it was only after university that his reading stepped up. He became hungry to learn, hungry for books of all kinds and when he visited he would prowl my shelves in search of a title he recognized, or that piqued his curiosity. What did you think of this, he might ask, usually holding up a volume I had not cracked for years. So he has roused me to do a lot of re- reading, and to read more poetry, some of which he writes.
     We often agree on what we think is good. Dostoyevsky, for example, which was his Christmas gift from me maybe five years ago. The Brother's Karamazov.  I wanted him to read The Grand Inquisitor speech, something that had so influenced me. A few months ago he referred to that while we were discussing Crime and Punishment. We both have copies of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which we read around the time his mother died. We both devoured The Goldfinch, although I stopped at the last chapter, which felt too much like summing up to me. End a book when it is finished, is my thought on it. Jimmy has nudged me back to Roberto Boleano, whom neither of us counts as a favourite, and introduced me to Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. I've enjoyed my younger friend's discovery of Henry Miller, and we have both lingered in admiration over scenes and lines in Tennessee Williams plays. We plan to read, even if not exactly simultaneously, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride.
     As for Geoffrey, after the waitress cleared our boxes and poured more tea he mentioned Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher whose book State of Exception my older friend referred to as a way of explaining how governments can get away with virtual murder in times of crisis. Within a "state of exception" the boundaries of power are precarious and threaten to destabilize not only the law, but one’s humanity, as well as their choice of life or death.  Certainly a timely allusion, and one that applies to government reactions to real and perceived terrorist threats, and to the internment camps, stories of which are the awful and inescapable parts of the WWII books that have Geoffrey so hooked.
     My brother reads and my nephew, mostly crime fiction, and as a person whose life has been concerned with reading and writing I know many other men who read too, despite what the statistics say, so Geoffrey and Jimmy are not really the exceptions. Yet in the power they have to make me think, it's fair to say that they are exceptional.