from A Pillow Book: "A Great Book can be read again and again..."
A Great Book can be read again and again, inexhaustibly, with great benefit to great minds, wrote Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the Great Books Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World program at the university where my husband will be going up for tenure next fall, and where I sometimes teach as well, albeit in a lesser, “non-ladder” position. Not only must a Great Book still matter today, Adler insisted, it must touch upon at least twenty- five of the one hundred and two Great Ideas that have occupied Great Minds for the last twenty-five centuries. Ranging from Angel to World, a comprehensive list of these concepts can be found in Adler’s two-volume Syntopicon: an Index to the Great Ideas, which was published with Great Fanfare, if not Great Financial Success, by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. Although the index includes many Great Ideas, including Art, Beauty, Change, Desire, Eternity, Family, Fate, Happiness, History, Pain, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, Time, and Truth, it does not, alas, include an entry on Pillows, which often strike me, as I sink into mine at the end of long day of anything, these days, as at the very least worthy of note. Among the five hundred and eleven Great Books on Adler’s list, updated in 1990 to appease his quibbling critics, moreover, only four, I can’t help counting, were written by women—Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George—none of whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone’s mother.
In which Eve plucks her moustache.
In which Achilles waxes his ass.
In which a butterfly triggers The Tempest.
In which Moby Dick performs his own stunts.
In which Bashō smokes hashish.
In which the Buddha buys bonds.
In which the Heavenly Banquet is served with a spork.
In which Galahad chugs from the grail.
In which spring follows summer.
In which moss grows on meteors.
In which Pelé scores on the Peloponnesian Fields.
Not in stock, says the campus bookstore clerk looking up from his screen with a smile when I inquire, incognito, after my books which are nowhere to be found on the shelves. We used to have two copies of the first one, he says, but no one bought them, so we sent them back last June. We never carried the second one, he adds, but we could order it for you. What’s your name? I glance up, above his head, at a shelf of Staff Picks. Between a history of disgust and a guide for saving the planet, I spot my husband’s last book, gleaming in the day’s dying light. Forget it, I mutter into my muffler, I can get it from Amazon by Friday. I go home and order an ivory satin pillowcase instead, guaranteed to reduce hair loss due to breakage and soften fine lines.
A babysitter whose babysitter is sick.
Nunchucks at a gunfight.
Stiletto heels at the beach.
Last year’s flu shot.
Next year’s peace talks.
Heian courtesans slept lightly, when they slept at all, fully dressed in perfumed robes on straw mats, behind elabroately painted screens upon which their noble visitors knocked softly at all hours. In their onnade “women’s script,” they kept detailed notes about flowers, festivals, and furtive trysts on delicately tinted pages stashed in narrow drawers inside their pillows. These documents, copied and recopied over the centuries by courtiers, monks, and scholars in a relentlessly modernizing Japan, provide readers today with the richest portrait of any culture of its time on the globe. I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, reports the nonchalant Shōnagon, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material.
All day I lie sprawled across my pillow watching a light crust of snow retract across the lawn into a thin band of shade along the fence. I watch the sun fail to rise above the Japanese maple and drop like a coin into a slot in the wall.
Therapies A to Z