I am slowly reading my way through Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer and this morning, in the course of the chapter on the sentence, found myself brought up short her quotation of the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill. It’s a lengthy quote, even though it is only one sentence long, but I hope you will excuse my repeating here.
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth – rinse the mouth” with the greetings of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
Prose is writing about the sentence; Woolf (when we finally get there, although I’m not complaining about the journey) about the paucity of novels centred around illness. Both of these are subjects for other posts. However, what caught my attention in this quite remarkable opening to Woolf’s essay was the accuracy of her observation about the way in which illness affects our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world.
Last week I had a bout of food poisoning. It was not funny! Neither, however, was it in any sense life-threatening. That didn’t stop me feeling extremely vulnerable and casting my mind ahead to that time when I shall no longer be able to live alone and will need to downsize to a property that while smaller will also be safer for someone who has no immediate family who will be able to offer support.
This week, I am glad to report, I am feeling rather more positive, but the fact that my house (not to mention my garage) is full of things which I rarely use and which it might be a good idea to slowly recycle (i.e. get rid of) instead of having to panic at some point in the future, has stayed with me. You know where this is going, don’t you?
What do I do about the books?
Oh, I am not unaware of the irony. Given that in my previous post I was complaining about the number of people who borrow books and then never return them, is there not a perfect answer right there? Don’t worry about it. In fact, start begging people to borrow books simply so that they will take them away and install them permanently on their shelves. Problem solved.
I think not.
To begin with, it is never the books that I think I might manage without that people want to borrow. The ones that don’t return are always the ones that I would never dream of being parted from whatever the circumstances. And furthermore, I have a sinking feeling that if I started lending out books willy-nilly the winds of change might begin to blow and people might suddenly start sending them back to me. I might end up with even more than I have now.
One very simple first step has been to bring together all those books that others have lent me in the past. I’m sorry if feelings are going to be hurt, but they are going back unread. Then there are those books that have been languishing on my shelves ever since I moved into this house and are still as pristine as the day they were bought. If I haven’t got round to reading them in fifteen years they really can’t have been that important in the first place. And, if I’m honest, there are some that have been there at least twice as long as that. The charity shops are going to have a field day.
But, what about the rest?
Being harshly practical I know that at least half of what I have in the house and all of those stored in the garage are going to have to go, but on what principal of selection? I can’t be the only person out there who has faced this dilemma. There must be people who have walked this path before me and come up with some sort of acceptable strategy. No suggestion can be too wild, too extreme. I just need help – soon!
P.S. Ideas as to what to do about the twenty-two teapots wouldn’t go amiss either.