Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that Brodsky’s list is not really “basic” but rather a fairly arbitrary roster of cool stuff he had read and wanted to talk about. But given how few people have read all the books on his list, we may wonder if he lived in a state of perpetual loneliness and despair.
I also have a strong suspicion that a “basic” conversation with Joseph Brodsky would actually be rather, well, dull. The list implies that he was a fairly typical representative of the Russian intelligentsia – only on steroids – forever banging on about ideas and books. I knew people like that in Moscow, and found their intellectual status anxiety decidedly off-putting. A friend of mine (and Brodsky fan) spent her entire adult life in such circles, and then at age 50 found that she couldn’t take the tedium any more. She started watching Bruce Willis movies and listening to punk music.
Brodsky’s mistake, and it is a mistake, was to associate good conversation (and by extension, I’d suggest intelligence) with book learning. But just as last week I observed that many intelligent people are not wise, so it is that many well-read people are not interesting. The qualities that make for an interesting conversationalist – wit, originality, experience, verbal dexterity, storytelling ability — cannot be extracted from familiarity with a mountain of books.
One of the most entertaining conversations I ever had — well, bore witness to, technically, since he did almost all the talking — was on a sixty-mile ride in a tow truck. Man, that was one funny redneck. (It’s okay; he classified himself that way. And besides, as he explained at length, those boys over in certain parts of West Virginia, they’re the real hillfolk, the crazy-scary kind.)
So, no, book learning doesn’t necessarily make for better conversation. I read like a man possessed, but like James Collins, I feel embarrassed sometimes to glance at books on my shelves and realize that I probably couldn’t spontaneously say more than a couple sentences about their contents, let alone cite anything specific that impressed me. I do agree with what Maryanne Wolf told him, though:
“There is a difference,” she said, “between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”
Did this mean that it hadn’t been a waste of time to read all those books, even if I seemingly couldn’t remember what was in them?
“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”
It’s a comforting thought, and I have experienced that — having informed opinions bubble up which I didn’t even know I had. Score one for bookishness. That gestalt of knowledge is somewhat of a mystery stew, however; there’s no telling what will come up in the ladle. After a lunch with the highly-educated Arthur a few years ago, I happened to write down a rough transcript of what we talked about for posterity’s sake:
After a brief back-and-forth over the merits of atheism vis-à-vis agnosticism, Arthur told me that the patent on (his wife’s) invention is about to be sent out, so we started talking about what he was going to do with all the money he might get. We talked about lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, which led to him pondering the necessity of having “people” to do that sort of thing for you, to stick their fingers in a flame and use them to light the hundred-dollar bill without betraying any expression on their face. Then we discussed the potential for this device to be used to usher in the Orwellian superstate, which led us into imagining him ruling as some sort of deranged dictator, parading around in public with epaulets and medals, issuing bizarre proclamations (“Today we are having all goldfish shot!”), and forcing schools to intensively study favorite authors of his, like Wilde and Ruskin. He revealed that he has always harbored a fond desire to be able to yell, “Seize him!” at least once in his life, so we decided that one way he could practice in the meantime would be to go to the lobster tank at the grocery store and choose one (“Which one would you like, sir?” [pointing] “Seize him!”). I asked if he had been planning this for some time, and he laughed and said no, this was all just spontaneous, off the top of his head. “So, the rampaging id meets Saturday morning cartoons?” I asked. He choked on his drink with laughter and said he was envisioning some cross between Skeletor, Montgomery Burns, and Dr. Evil, noting that it is apparently a requirement that all evil tyrants learn how to say, “Eeeeeexcellent.” He told me a story about some Russian scientist who foolishly stuck his head inside the door of something like a particle accelerator (?) and had a proton – one single proton – pass through his head at high speed, causing all sorts of brain damage and nearly killing him. Thus we decided that this would be the favored method of execution in the new superstate — bullets and nooses are just so 19th and 20th century. So I said, “Seize him! To the particle accelerator with him!” which made Arthur snort and spray his soda all over the booth. Finally, we agreed that we both had a long list of enemies that would be marched into the accelerator immediately.
Not one of our more highbrow (to say nothing of morally respectable) conversations, but it was all right.
In our intellectual defense, we did have a four-member Nietzsche book club one spring. Now that was some good conversation.