In the book I’m reading, I come across this passage:
There is the old story of Somerset Maugham reading Proust while crossing the desert by camel, and to lighten his load he tore out each page after reading both sides and let it fall behind him—one wants to say the wind was involved, but on most days there was no wind. With or without wind, who had a more memorable reading experience, Somerset Maugham or the one who came after him, the one who found and read a page here, a page there, in some strange new order with stellar gaps?
And of course, I must stop there and look up from the page to imagine this scene: I’ve never read anything by Somerset Maugham and I don’t know what looks like so in my mind, I give him floppy, boyish gray hair and a short gray beard to hide his features. I dress him in sweat-stained, ebony-colored linen with a pair of bottle green aviator goggles to protect his eyes. He sits astride a dusty camel that has just regurgitated its foul-smelling breakfast to be re-chewed and swallowed again, but Somerset does not notice the cloud of rotten-broccoli camel breath and he doesn’t feel the sand kicked in his face by the camel in front of him, he is completely unaware of the sun threatening to set his straw hat on fire. His eyes are screwed tight on the page in front of his face, a page in a book I think I read in college but I can’t remember (ha ha, that is sort of funny—I can’t remember Remembrance of Things Past). Somerset gives his finger a greedy lick and turns the page, letting his finger trace a sensuous trail down and when he reaches the final word, he tears that page out with a quick flourish and tosses it over his shoulder. Behind him, a long trail of pages lie baking in the sand.
I see all this clearly for a moment before my actual setting sinks back in. I’m on the BART train coming home from work during rush-hour traffic, squeezed in by the door, clinging to a rather greasy vertical metal pole with my left hand while my right strains to hold the book open in front of my face. To my right, the back of a woman’s head hangs close enough for me to smell the acrid scent of her hair. I don’t know who’s standing behind me but whatever they’re holding juts into the small of my back every time the brakes are applied and when the train stops, I must step outside the car to make way for those exiting, then push my way back into my corner and grab the metal bar before anyone else does.
When the train lurches forward again, I look back down at my book and it only takes a moment before I’m gone again, wondering how Somerset could tear those pages. The story says he does it to lighten his load but really, how heavy could those pages be? When I love a book, I will write in its margins, dog-ear its pages, and keep it close forever. I’d never tear a book. For practical reasons, as well. What if you need something to start a fire? What if your hat blows off or you need a fan or you run out of food? I wonder if a good book tastes better than a sucky one. I bet it gets cold at night in the desert. I’d be the one trailing behind the camel, chasing down each page, and tucking it under my arm for later, because you never know when you’re going to need a book.
What if you’re trapped on a crowded train?
A woman’s voice mutters behind me. “He touched me, he touched me. If he touches me again, I’ll bite his finger.” I turn to see the very short, squat figure clad in several layers of sweaters who has given words to what we’re all thinking. Her backpack is huge and she’s not tall enough to reach the looped handle dangling over her head so instead, she has her arms and legs placed wide like a surfer. Her narration has nudged the crowd away, leaving her a little room.
The train rises and breaks the surface again and when the sunlight bursts in, it’s a huge relief. I didn’t notice I was holding my breath until I breathed again, and it feels like everyone on the train breathes with me. The air is just as stale as it was before but the sunlight and the long view of the bay and the bridge in the distance fool my eyes and I inhale deeply and fill my eyes with space. The world is golden yellow with rusty edges. Beyond rows of apartment buildings, the bay dangles like a muddy cashmere scarf and the city is a geometric smear in the distance.
One of the things I love about reading on the train is that in a book, you travel so far and when you look up, your mental shift is reflected by the altered view, and the world becomes a metaphor. The train is the perfect place for reading a book. Reading and riding are both easy ways to meet people and see things but you don’t have to smile or chat or entertain. You can just sit there, being alone together.
Somerset clearly knew how to be alone together, so maybe he had a different motive for ripping the book. After all, I’m reading Mary Ruefle reading Somerset Maugham reading Proust. Proust could have written “read” and Somerset read “thread” and Mary heard “bread” and I saw “braid” and we’re all perfectly happy with the crumb we found on the trail; no matter what, it was metaphorical, filled with meaning, and reassured us that we were headed in the right direction.
I could tell you a story about the time I stood on the BART train reading a book by Mary Ruefle. The train was crowded but I didn’t mind, because the book was that good. But this story needs a conflict, this story needs oomph. Maybe when she was finished, the woman that was me left the book on the train, left it there for you, so you could see for yourself.
Maybe my buddy Somerset didn’t rip so carelessly. Maybe it was love, not the need for a lighter load, that made him ruin the book. Maybe he kissed each page once and pressed it into his beard before he let it fly. Maybe he was thinking of the readers who would come later and find those miraculous pages like gifts from god, like rain.
About the art: I met my artist friend Kristijan Hranisavljevic at work. In other words, I’ve never met him, which is something that can be said about many friends these days. He lives in Serbia and I’m in the US; he was doing an illustration for an article I edited and when I saw the eloquent ears he drew on the side of a fishbowl (long story), I knew he was someone to watch. I admired his art and he liked my writing he offered to illustrate something I’d written.
It tickles me that the Somerset Maugham I imagined looks nothing like Kristijan’s illustration looks nothing like the actual author. Nonetheless, now I will always think of this drawing when I think of the author. This is how art trumps reality.
Thank you Kristijan.
Really enjoyed this. As I read your descriptive phrases throughout, I thought to myself: Why can’t you do that? 🙂
Thank you, Julieallyn.
Amazing theme, really enjoyed reading
Yesss really very gudd
Was on a crowded BART train yesterday. I had no book (out of practice, BART-wise) and it was too crowded to open a newspaper, so I looked at commuters looking at their devices. Playing Candy Crush, or worse, solitaire, or worse, slots. And I was thinking, how could you when you could be reading a book??
Do people still read newspapers? Don’t get me started on cell phones, Mike, although I suppose a book on a cell phone is better than no book at all.
If the story is true and I was in the party he might have mysteriously disappeared!
I have always wondered at the people that are able to read a good book only once
Do not know about book on cell phone but enjoy the kindle especially if I am reading three or four books at once
I completely agree. That’s why I never get rid of my favorites! So I can always go back.
It’s a lunch break, and a long one which always feels too short, and I’m spending a bit of it like cash on your blog, because when I see a post I come over and spend cold hard time with it, because your words, honey. Your words.
Gianna! An honor to be there on your precious break. I really do like the way you talk.
So lovely and evocative — I see such great images in my head right now: a man kissing a book; fallen torn pages in the desert; people reading alone, together, on a train.
I see you have been having some fabulous adventures, Cheri—please write more!
Very gudd. Mann PLZZZ WRITE SOME MORE BLOGS
Your concatenation of writers brought another to my mind – Italo Calvino. And you evoke reading on crowded trains in and out of London (and I imagine the world over) perfectly.
Italo Calvino! *swoon* And you just taught me a new word, so thank you twice.
Wow, this was a very visceral and spiritual experience in one nutshell of paper and ink no?
Now that you mention it, I guess there is something very spiritual about reading poetry on a train.
I thought the feeling of leaving the poetry behind for others was spiritual as in a connection between one;s self and others’ selves 🙂
You capture for me the moments of the story so beautifully, and I love how there is always the integration and simultaneous separation of the themes. Lovely
I’m going to have to think some more about what you said about the themes. xoox
Ok now I want to read Mary Ruefle reading Somerset Maugham reading Proust. Maybe I’ll feel some of that deep connection you did. Loved this post!!
If you’re into that stuff, I recommend Madness, Rack, and Honey. It was like she took a can opener to my skull.
Thank you:D! I will check them out for sure
I just smeared your words on my breakfast toast because, yum.
Yum. You made me hungry.
“Read.” “Thread.” “Bread.” What wonderful crumbs you left along the trail for us to read….
Just drop it when you’re done with it!
Loved it. Beautiful.
Thank you, Stuart.
Ah, but perhaps Maugham really was thinking “breadcrumbs” and thinking (as he read, and knew that someday he’d be observed reading) about Hansel or Gretel–and you, coming behind, gathering up his assiduously-scattered orts, would have doomed him to being lost … then having to outface a witch to get home … Say, what ever happened to W. Somerset Maugham, anyway?
After his companion Gerald Haxton died in 1944 he moved back to England. In 1946 he returned to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.
Died 1965 at age of 91.
Ha. Poor Somerset, wandering blind and lost on that camel, wishing Proust would show him the way.
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When I was reading your post, it made me to imagine everything that you have said. To avoid conversations, to be alone in my world, I use books as a weapon. To be in a book world is far better than being in a real world.
Your descriptive writing style is very thought- provoking. Not many can pull that off… Quite refreshing.
Thank you, moylomenterprises.
Wonderful post. And the artwork is really cool. Didn’t realize that the scene is set outside a train. Pretty cool.
This is the first time an artist has offered to illustrate a thing I wrote. Many artists have allowed me to use their art to illustrate a post, but this is the first time the writing came first and dictated. I’m amazed at how Kristijan’s vision stands on its own.
Genuinely one of the best things I’ve read in a while 🙂 congratulations on being freshly pressed!
Thank you! It’s been a very exciting day.
If it’s poetry then there is no excuse, not to read. As an introvert I will take reading any day of the week. But i am finding that it puts me in a more comfortable place (mentally). Then its not that difficult to even say hello or have a nice day: to the person beside you.
Exactly, cilaneantonette21. Everyone looks nicercutersmarter when you have a book in your hand.
Your post sparked a memory of my youth that I am loathe to mention. While in college, my roommate and I embarked on a ten day tour of Paris for credit, with our marketing club. While flying, I had brought a book with me to read. As my roommate sitting close to me (without a book) contentedly read over my shoulder, in frustration I began to tear each page out as I finished, and pass it to her in an attempt to regain my personal space. I can assure you my book was not Proust but more likely a light fiction read of the Danielle Steele sort. Still, the irresponsibility and non-chalance of maiming a book makes me feel bad still. Perhaps the point of Somerset leaving the pages behind in his travels was for some creature to gobble up and acquire the knowledge. That would make for an interesting story. And I too love to read on trains. Our local train station leaves a free collection of books for commuters of which I often indulge.
I completely understand why you’d tear the book, under these circumstances. There are some things a person needs to do alone, and reading is just one of them.
I love the idea of a free library for commuters. I wonder why every train doesn’t have that?!
Perspective is the key. Would the Beatles be great in today’s world of music? Would Gilligan’s Island be a sensation or Lost in Space? It is when things happen that causes them to click or not click.
Awax1217! My 8 yo is watching Gilligan’s Island now and she loves it. I’m thinking we’ll do Star Trek next. (Lost in Space: I always felt sorry for the robot, and didn’t like that cranky character one bit.)
green acres is worth a viewing, i still miss/remember those reruns. and the show could work today, you could even change ‘the country’ for another country where farming is still done more by hand, less by industry.
Peculiar yet attractive. Love every bit of this post. How it made me want to know more about Somerset Maugham for a moment and then about you on the train.
Thanks for the read.
Ah, your writing is so fresh. Beautiful.
Hi Anna – really enjoyed your post. It seemed to me that here was something of the rhythm of a camel’s stride about it. In a Lawrence of Arabia sense, not this sense https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNiWLJxxK70 Not quite sure where that rhythm resides, but I could feel it.
Wanted to ask you a question – do they have poems on the BART trains? Like this http://literature.britishcouncil.org/projects/2012/poems-on-the-underground I wondered because Poems on the Underground in London was started by an American woman.
I want Poems on BART and to dance like that. (Doing an air figure eight with index finger all over what you wrote up there.) You have good ideas.
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Well Written! Loved it
I found it wordy,and didnt say much to me about, reading travel or philosophy. It did seem to carry some vapid imagery, good for that. Sorry for the hard crit as a painter I love them! Kindly, Mag
I loved the passage you mentioned, full of thoughts and metaphors.
Loved this post! A bright spot in my morning – creativity at it’s best .
Maybe it was a thick hardback that Maugham tore up. It would certainly be hard to hold a heavy hardback while bouncing along on a camel, and getting rid of pages could make it a lot easier to hold. Perhaps he was traveling into the sun, and was holding the book up high as a shield from the sun, in which case it would be even harder to hold as the day wore on. And if he had tennis elbow, even worse. He’d be cranky and feel like tearing up something.
I need this story on audible to get me through my long driving hours
Congrats on the Freshly Pressage again and Recommended blogger! Wow!
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I just adore Maugham! I’m sure even he himself would have loved to read this very well written article! Really, my compliments.
Great post, that image of Somerset Maugham ambling across the desert is going to stay with me. Does the book share what he was doing in the desert?
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I love books the way you do. Most of mine are written in, folded over in the corners, maybe even falling apart from re-reading, but I have an emotional attachment to them and an investment in them that does not allow me to part with any treasured volume…….
I loved this story!
This is really awesome.
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This was awesome! Funny, and unique. And Kristjian’s illustration made it so much better. Love it. 🙂
Hi I’m a some what new blogger and I was wondering if you can stop by my log and tell me what you thing and if you like what you see follow me. And any tips you have would be helpful. Thanks.
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This is lovely. I started reading and just didn’t want to stop.
And the cartoon is just perfect.
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I know that this has already been Freshly Pressed, but it’s so awesome that I had to reblog it.
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I usually like to read all the comments before I become redundant, there were so many I didn’t, but your post was so good I had to say bravo. Your writing is superior, reasoned, and explicit. Readers are thinkers. Being an author I see many folks at signings, appearances, etc. As people pass, readers have the glow of cognitive thought emanating from their eyes … the TV folks are just “glazed over.”
Your posts always keep me coming back for more…
You truly inspire me!
I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award!
If you would like to accept please follow the link below! Keep up the great work! Dr. Dee~
This piece is delightful. Alive, with a verbally playful, descriptively thoughtful, savory richness to it. I enjoyed the dining experience!
Lovely post 🙂
Written so well! You present an amazing take on the communal value of art. Fiction isn’t just some device of escapism to but also as a way of intimate contact and discourse between unique beings. Thanks for the great read. :3
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Absolutely stunning. I could feel the train rocking beneath my feet. I look forward to reading more of your work.
An Exceptional Write, Glad I Found your Web Page Anna (love this) “One of the things I love about reading on the train is that in a book, you travel so far and when you look up, your mental shift is reflected by the altered view, and the world becomes a metaphor.”