“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…”
- Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3
This may be very true, but it is not quite the kind of tide I have in mind.
That said, it may be that all the High Tides source from the same Well-Spring.
I can also apportion these Tidal Phases to certain discrete periods in my own reading life.
Period One: Aged 11 years and under – it was during this phase, the primary school years, that a great deal of varied material was imbibed, much of it forgotten now, though still present in the subconscious as shadowed form, the great edge of some dark beast’s ear, the looming shoulder of some half-formed presence. This period, for me, was in the 1970s. First, all the Peter and Jane books at school were devoured, from adventures with golden labradors, to sunned gardens, to the exotic depiction of rockets at Cape Canaveral. Later, all the James Herriot books. I became, in mind, a vet while reading those books. For a year, James Herriot’s sane, rational voice, with its humane and animal Yorkshire Dale pre-occupations, took over a large section of my Highland Scottish mind’s real estate. Napoleonic history was of interest at this point, too; as well as a supernatural novel about Cromwellian-era witch-craft which terrified me so deeply that I could not look under my bed, or reach my hand underneath it, for weeks, one scene having left such intense fear. By about age 10, Ian Fleming had crept in. My Primary School teacher, Miss Blood, her real name, noticed I was reading The Spy Who Loved Me during a class reading session. I was invited to the front of the class for interrogation, asked if my parents knew what I was reading, but I must have held my ground somehow, and was sent back to my desk to resume that early venture into the world of James Bond.
Period Two: Aged 11-16 – this was when John Steinbeck crept in, via The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. A Kestrel for a Knave made its mark, or found its mark. Things took a surge forward, though, with an extra-curricular handing over to me, aged 14, of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There was genius in the timing of the event, and the circumstances. My mind sucked the book in like a tick pulling at haemoglobin. It feels wrong somehow to call this merely “reading”; the timeless soul is being accessed.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest hit my psyche with that High Tide momentum, crossed the blood-brain barrier, healed and hurt as it travelled through, left permanent artefacts stranded on the beach. There it was, all in one document, something I knew I would need to know later, if I was to survive.
This was the rare instance of a book causing a High Tide in the reader.
It gave me a benchmark to compare reading experiences to from then on.
This can’t be faked.
To catch the reader’s high tide is to achieve a mainlining into the brain, a direct injection of the literary drug into the reader’s psychic lobes.
I found Stephen King, and Thomas Hardy, to be quite the hardy mariners during this period also. The Stand, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge…those vessels tacked close to my shores and breached all defences, flooding in hard upon the cerebellum, hammering in hard and heavy on the rocks of the subconscious, leaving permanently useful flotsam on the surface, never mind how much it may have resembled debris to the casual observer.
Period Three: Age 16-23 – the most powerful, sustained period of high-tide in this reader’s life to date. In the Jungle of reading, all the plants and trees and insects and flowers became inflamed, engorged, replete with colour and sound at this point. It may be because I left school at 16, encountered unemployment, had the freedom and time to read. The books at the library were free, or were reasonably priced at Leakey’s Second-hand Bookshop. I started with Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Almost any title, in fact, that I had heard of, or that I knew might have been on a reading syllabus if I had stayed on at school past 16. There was a huge hardback collection of the works of D. H. Lawrence. I took to bed with it, perhaps helped by the alibi of cold/flu. By the time I emerged from bed, the DNA of my mind had been weirdly and subtly altered forever. Ray Bradbury was next to catch up on. Then Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Jung’s Man and His Symbols, and Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
The tide was building. Sometimes there was a feeling of anxiety/unsettlement associated with the High Tide’s gain of momentum, but the channels of the mind were open, it was doing what it was supposed to do, what it was designed for, to magnetise from the world those items of knowledge and wisdom, earned and passed on by others in a chain of transmission going back endlessly.
The mind's purpose: to recognise, then absorb those panned nuggets of precious metal.
All of Phillip Roth’s novels were judiciously hoovered up.
Milan Kundera’s books were pulled into and through the vortex.
Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux by John Updike.
A Green Tree in Gedde by Alan Sharp.
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.
Sometimes chance would lead me to a book, sometimes a friend, sometimes a mention in a film, a Woody Allen film in the case of Flaubert.
The high tide kept forcing the water higher and higher up my personal beach, knocking over and dissolving my sandcastles, flooding my moats…pushing and pushing in at me as it seems certain it is designed, one way or another, to do…until it had me just about where it needed me I suppose, so that I would be ready to hear when it offered me the next opportunity of salvage rights on a piece of long-travelled cargo.
I can imagine something out there watching me that day, to see if I would recognise the treasure when it hit my shore.
I think I knew by the worn, second-hand cover, the sharpness of the print, the list of characters at the front as though this was a play, not a novel, even though this was decidedly a novel, not a play.
And the title.
What other title could it have?
What other title could there be for the book that was to hit my shore hardest during this early period of reader’s high-tide?
I stared at the bluish-purple cover.
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Then I began to turn the pages, and I have been deep, deep, in the dark, dark waters ever since.