The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Between Books

Ronald Knox, who was, among other things, enough of a Trollope fan that he wrote the charming (if slight) Barchester Pilgrimage, was a Catholic priest, Sherlockian, detective story writer, and amiable eccentric.

He was also a formidable scholar. And who but Knox could begin his magnum opus with a dedicatory epistle to a novelist, his friend Evelyn Waugh? The opening of the epistle, though, speaks to every scholar who has put pen to paper, or keystroke to pixel, for that matter:
There is a kind of book about which you may say, almost without exaggeration, that it is the whole of a man's literary life, the unique child of his thought. Other writings he may have published on this or that occasion; please God, the work was not scamped, nor was he indifferent to the praise and blame of his critics. But it was all beside the mark. The Book was what mattered--he had lived with it all these years, fondled it in his waking thoughts, used it as an escape from anxiety, a solace in long journeys, in tedious conversations. Did he find himself in a library, he made straight for the shelves which promised light on one cherished subject; did he hit upon a telling quotation, a just metaphor, an adroit phrase, it was treasured up, in miser's fashion, for the Book. The Book haunted his day-dreams like a guilty romance.
Barring his restricting of writers to whom this feeling would be known to men, and disregarding women writers, even those of his own day and in his own field, such as Evelyn Undehill, the sentiment is profoundly true, although in my own case, each phase of life has produced a different Book.

When I was a young man, I read in the biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes of his ambition to write his magnum opus, The Common Law (1881) before his 40th birthday (he just made it). In a fit of bravado, I resolved to write my book on freedom of speech before my own 40th birthday, and published First Amendment, First Principles in 2000; the revised edition with two added chapters came out while I was still under 40. It was the Book for me through my young manhood, finished and expanded before I hit the line of middle age. A young man's book, not to be mentioned in the same breath as the classic Holmes wrote, but it was the very best I could do, and it defined an era in my own life. It was, for that time, the Book, and I never thought I'd write another.

But then came the great surprise--Phineas at Bay, a novel, for me the greatest form of literature, and one which I had aspired to write when I scribbled a few stories by hand in off hours as an English major at Fordham College, or at Columbia Law School. But I had no staying power, and the stories waned and died. But then I had the Book, First Amendment, First Principles, and counted myself lucky to have written that.

In my mid-40s, though, I was gripped as I had been a decade before, and wrote the continued adventures of Phineas Finn, Marie Finn, and their set. I had another Book. It sells, a few copies little here and there, now and again, and I have been paid and have used that money to pay the light bill, so I meet Stephen King's criteria to be deemed a talented writer (thankya big big, sai King!).

In just a few weeks, I will be 52.

As I move into the latter half of middle age, I wonder: will lightning strike thrice? I don't mean in the quality of the books--I'm no Holmes, no Trollope, no King--but will the tank refill, inspiration ignite, and the wonderful madness of pursuing the Book again be mine to revel in? Frankly, I feel guilty hoping for it--once was luck, twice was inexpressibly joyful, but three times--why, it feels almost greedy to hope for it.


And earlier this week, I found that a drying up point at another novel I'd started over a year ago suddenly was not a stopping point. It's too early to tell if this will be a third "the Book"--but hope--well, hope comes unbidden.

Only time will tell.

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