I recently read Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers — one of the more extraordinary reading experiences of my recent years. I had started it once, decades ago, and then again a few years later, but it’s probably been 25 years since I’ve even tried to read it.
I have a kind of instinct for reading, or at least I think I do. I always have plans for what to read; sometimes I follow those plans and sometimes I don’t. But every now and then I’ll be planning a series of books to read, or articles and essays — or maybe I’ll actually be in the middle of reading something — when I’ll suddenly think, You need to drop what you’re doing and read this other thing instead. That doesn’t happen often; two or three times a year, maybe. But it is an inner prompting (like Socrates’s δαιμόνιον) that I have learned to obey. I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know that when the impulse comes I find it irresistible. I have learned to accept the prompt and to be grateful for it.
So: a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of planning some reading, and I looked up from whatever I had on my lap, my computer or my notebook, and my eyes fell on my copy of Joseph and His Brothers, and I thought: It’s time to read that. I did, and I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did; it’s an outrageously brilliant work of art. While reading I had thought that I might write a long essay about the experience of reading this book, but on further consideration I doubt that my responses to it would fit into an essay. They’re too complicated and digressive. (In that sense, they’re much like the book itself.) So I’ll be writing about it here, on themes and topics and events that interest me, in no particular order. It’s not the sort of book that you comprehend on one reading – it’s not the sort of book that you can even confidently navigate in in one reading – so my attempt to write about it will require me to re-navigate it, to return and reread and rethink and reconsider. Stay tuned. I mean, if you’re into this kind of thing.