“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” –T.S. Eliot, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
From the time they were babies I have been buying our daughters books: books for when they were older; books of literature; books that have stood, patiently, for a decade of waiting for the moment when it would make sense for young hands to reach out for them.
My 18th century poetry professor built his course around a unifying idea: all poems respond to, or remember other poems. To read is to remember. What makes reading enjoyable, and also difficult, is that reading requires reading. Reading demands that we have read what is here being re-read in this text: the name of a character; the choice of a phrase; the subtle allusion to a scene from another book. Reading expects us to bring as much as the text itself provides, perhaps more. The memory is not the thing it remembers. It is not here. It is not available. Reading is the magic trick of conjuring the past.
Our sister-in-law was over at our house the other day. She and my wife were looking through a design book, our youngest daughter reading on the couch. My wife commented on her love of white and red. “Where did it come from, this life-long love of red?” my wife asked. “I don’t know,” our sister-in-law replied. “I think it was a passage from a Cherry Ames book I read when I was little, where she described a beautiful red chair in her room. It’s always stuck with me, and come to represent what is beautiful.”
When she left our daughter came to my wife. “I know what she was talking about,” she said quietly. “I know who that is, it mentioned her name in my book. One of the earlier chapters talked about that character.” Her face showed that she’d understood a secret, that she herself had done the trick of reading, remembering, recognizing. It was her first view into literature, a view only she could see from her particular vantage, hidden to me, yet something I can, and do, understand and treasure.