Wine dark sparks


‘How to Guzzle Books Like Wine’, Tom Jokinen on Jonathan Franzen, e-books, and Bohumil Hrabal‘s Too Loud A Solitude.

A read book is permanent, even if some of the details disappear with. I’ve read Emma but can’t remember much about it except that everyone has a governess and sews. But if my own work-in-progress concept of empathy is based on a lifetime of misunderstanding other people, it’s also been informed, just a tick, by Emma and the other novels which dramatize the folly of vanity. The details are gone but the ideas remain. Franzen is wrong: books are defined not by format but by the vagaries of art, through which something mystical sneaks into the reader’s mindand then won’t go away.

This is the experience of Hanta, the narrator of Too Loud A Solitude by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, self-published in 1976, and then officially in 1989 when the Iron Curtain melted. Hanta is a trash collector. His job for 35 years has been to gather Prague’s waste paper and crush it with a machine into bales for the landfill. Every day in his basement workroom he sees “heaven-sent horns of plenty in the form of bags, crates, and boxes raining down their old paper… wholesalers’ wrappings, out-of-date theater programs, ice-cream wrappers, sheets of paint-splattered wallpaper, piles of moist, bloody paper from the butchers’…” and of course books. Some of the books he keeps for his bulging shelves at home, but others he reads and then chucks into the compactor. Camus, Hegel, Kant: once read, their work is done. Once read they are like the ice-cream wrappers.

“How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain,” he says, “and anyone wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh.”