Last night a torrential downpour hit the streets of Victoria turning them into small rivers but today the sun is out again – it feels a bit cooler than yesterday though. Gozo seems to be a windy place and as the towns here sprawl around castles built on hilltops, there is little shelter from it anywhere on streets. While it is certainly off-season, Gozo seems to be popular weekend destination among locals from Malta all year round and I could only just find myself a table at Jubilee Cafe, right off the market square. I was served by a very friendly waitress in a waistcoat with a distinctively african bumline that kept the apron-strings at her back in center and strictly vertical. Local wines (and local always means Gozitan here, rather than Maltese) are surprisingly passable, so I spent my afternoon finishing a book by Milorad Pavić (wonderful as always), sipping away some white wine and listening to some music that I hadn’t heard for about twenty years. It took me three songs to recognise it as Pink Floyd 1987 album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”.
I am running somewhat low on books by now, which is slightly troubling as although Valletta bookstores are chock-full of titles on turks’ famous siege of the island and history of templars, they offer relatively little in terms of other reading material apart from the usual pulp. I did notice Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” on a shelf somewhere – this is probably thick enough a book to last until I make it to Rome.
On a related topic, I came across of another recent list of 1,000 novels to read before you die, this time by Guardian. I have personally always been suspicious about lists such as this – I don’t believe that there are 1,000 books that everyone should read any more than there is a single book that should be read by each and every person. However, in the foreword to the list, there is an interesting piece of back-of-the-envelope maths: suppose an average person reads about one novel a month at average throughout his or her life, beginning at the age of 5 or 6 and going on until 90. In that case, the person in question would have read pretty much precisely a thousand novels by the time he or she dies. And although the idea of all those 1,000 books being the same for all people would be a terrible one, it is actually a good question – what books will YOU make YOUR thousand to be? It might be more for some of us, and it might be less for others – but at the end it will be a definite number of books, a kind of list that will be final once you close the cover of the last book you ever read. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that
Fiction enables us to live multiple lives in a universe of shadows, which though fragile and slight, we incorporate into our lives. These ghosts influence our destinies and help us to resolve the conflict resulting from our strange condition of having a body condemned to a single life and appetites demanding another thousand. To tell stories is to live more, and better.
So this means that opening a book is a decision, and not at all a trivial one – you choose one particular author over countless of others, you read this novel and not all those rest that you could have read instead. And, following Llosa, by doing this you decide how you live. I think this is the very same kind of an urgency that underlies what Schoperhauer once said: “In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”