I know it’s been declared gauche this year to count the books you read, but I see no reason to stop. My uncle has recorded every book he’s read since age 15 (he’s now about 75), and estimated back his childhood consumption for a pretty good guess at totality: perhaps 5,000 volumes, a million pages; full knowledge of the library that makes him him. He has kept much of it, and inherited more - I believe he and my aunt hold a chunk of my grandfather’s library, passed from one man of letters (a doctorate in Latin poetry) to another (a professor of law). Given time I will presumably inherit some part of this archive myself, to join the hundred-odd twentieth century classics I purloined from my parents (really, my father) around the time I left home, fifteen years ago, which I have still not read - and the many hundred more I’ve bought.
Celebrity things-fetishist Marie Kondo recently caused a media tremor by suggesting that one might not keep every volume: “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?” she asked. There was outcry — so, being contrarian by orientation, of course I happen to agree. What is unread in it matters as much as what has been consumed: the library is a continual work in progress, a projection forwards as much as a means of looking back. Or rather, it is an archive of past projections forward, hope inseparable from memory. I own many volumes older than I am and will only come to own more. But still: nothing stays unless I believe I shall want to come back to it - a presentiment of a future return.
This one is new - book no.1 of 2019, James Salter’s first novel ‘The Hunters’ (1956) - but it’s also one that’s going to stay.
I’ll file it between the Saint-Exuperys and Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring (2015), and West With The Night by pioneering aviatrix Beryl Markham (1942/84). It’s about a pilot flying in the Korean War.
Books about flying share a core of feeling so achingly crystalline that not even other stories of near-death in the sublime (the Arctic, the desert, the mountains) quite touch. There is a sharp poignancy their writers know, that of cold air and low oxygen at altitude, and watching the sun rise and fall over the curvature of the earth. And there is one they do not, one that comes from the way these stories are about to become marooned in time, relic of a long twentieth century of kerosene and the jet engine, in which the planet seemed for a time a place where humankind might soar, and perilous though the risk we had not yet come crashing down. There will be solar sails, I suppose, but they will not be helmed by men.
Salter was recommended to me by Rishi Dastidar as a writer exceptional at the sentence level and worthy of study. I’m not sure I saw this: his prose is plainer than that led me to expect, though as spare and lean as these books usually are, with only the tiniest, carefully judged flights of lyricism. Instead I loved this book for the opposite reason: the narrative, and its ambivalence. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and nothing - and then it does, and of course by that time the narrator doesn’t want it anyway. But perhaps all books about war are like this, or all the good ones. I don’t know: I haven’t read so many of them. Yet.