Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Miscellaneous: Coincidence--Libraries Left Behind (April 17, 2012)

"Coincidence."A simple word that, taken at face value, means simply two events occurring simultaneously--or nearly so.

"Denotation." "Connotation." These are among the English words that I distinctly remember learning. There are comparatively few; I mostly remember grasping new words in foreign languages I've studied, where conscious effort is involved, but I can recall the moment I first heard those two English words.

The connotations of the word "coincidence" seem particularly rich. We appear incapable of accepting the word's baldest meaning. A coincidence always seems to portend something. A coincidence is a palimpsest. We write our own meanings onto the pale face of coincidence instinctively, virtually without thought. I try to resist the urge. To give in to it seems like intellectual laziness.

A recent coincidence suggested to me another kind of intellectual laziness and it set me to thinking, and ultimately to writing this little essay--although "essay" is far too important a word for it. My father, a rather distant man, died in February. He had an extensive library. When it became clear that my brother and I would be the ones to go through his books and dispose of the unwanted ones, I saw it as an opportunity to learn something about my father. I jumped to the conclusion that his books would tell me something meaningful, not really thinking. Intellectual laziness.

Last week, ahead of a concert my son was to play in (one of the Gerald Finzi Bagatelles for Clarinet) he had a rehearsal at the house of his accompanist. I would have taken a walk around her Oakmont neighborhood while waiting for him to finish his practicing, looking at the well-kept gardens, the wildly contorted oaks, the subtly colored pebbles embedded in the pavements, but it was raining--hailing, in fact. The accompanist invited me into the house. I sat on a sofa. She handed me a couple of issues of The New Yorker to pass the time. Much as I love The New Yorker, I don't subscribe--I'd never be able to keep up. I don't see the magazine often enough.  In the issue she handed me (November 7, 2011) I found an essay--yes, an essay--by James Wood called "Shelf Life: Packing up my Father-in-Law's Library." Coincidence. Here was another man thinking about the same things I was thinking about.

Wood comes to the conclusion in his essay that it's natural but perhaps wrong to think that a man's library tells us much about the man. I haven't decided whether he's right or wrong. But perhaps what he says doesn't apply here. There are more than just books in my father's library. He was an obsessive note-writer: Nearly every volume has in it a slip of paper or two--sometimes many more--lists, comments, questions, reminders jotted down. Surely this collection of paper--bound and unbound--means something?

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