THE READING ROOM: Books and Music Help Henry Jamison Examine All Sides
Photo by Patrick McCormack
Henry Jamison grew up with the dream of being a baseball player. He says that he “had some desire to fall into that quarterback-cheerleader summer romance, and that never happened for me.” Instead, he wound up at Bowdoin College in Maine, diving deep into literature, philosophy, and music. He takes the title of his new album, Gloria Duplex, from the writings of one his biggest influences, psychologist James Hillman. The phrase refers to maintaining a consciousness of both sides of an issue or situation, or healing the split. He hopes the songs on his album will encourage listeners to introduce complexity into their conversations. As he says, much of contemporary discourse, political or social, is often like “standing in front of a rainbow and seeing only one color; we need to see all the colors in the rainbow.”
I caught up with Jamison by phone recently to discuss books and reading with him.
What books are on your nightstand now?
Right now I am reading the first book in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—Swann’s Way. I read it about probably about five years ago, but now I am reading it with much more attention. I am also reading The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as Told to David Cayley. Right before he died, he talked to this journalist, so this is like a book-length interview. Illich is very critical of institutions; there are lot of theological arguments for institutions, for example, and he sought to illustrate the shortcomings of those arguments.
What’s the one book you won’t leave home without?
Rilke is my main man for reading when I am out on tours. His books have this kind of tarot quality. It’s almost as if he’s talking directly to you.
Do you always finish books?
I feel like I have a strong opinion about that, but if you look at my behavior, I don’t always live up to it. I follow the thread of my interest, so sometimes I will get so far before I put it down. I do have a sort of completist in me, though. If I’m interested in something, I will keep going. Usually, if I get started I will finish.
What about re-reading? Are there books that were important to you when you first read them and you find that upon returning to them they are not as important or affecting as they were on your first reading?
I feel like I haven’t gotten to that retrying moment yet. I read Joyce’s story “The Dead” in college. It got me going, in a lot of ways, but back then I thought it was about self-help. Now when I go back and read the story, I get more details and see the subtlety and get new insights. I read Crime and Punishment twice in college. My godfather taught the novel every year, so he’s read it at least, I don’t know, 45 times. I re-read it after he called Crime and Punishment his spiritual bedrock. I got almost all the way through [Robert] Musil’s Man without Qualities, and I absolutely need to re-read it.
What was your childhood reading like?
My mom is an English professor, so we had all sorts of books lying around, like Middlemarch and other sorts of British literature. My mom reads way more than anyone I know. My dad read The Wind and the Willows to my brother and me. But growing up I didn’t read at all. Well, that’s not entirely true; I read maybe half of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and I read Matt Christopher’s books about baseball. I remember reading his book Catcher with a Glass Arm over and over, sometimes at night with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.
Are there any books that have disappointed you?
I tend to be disappointed with myself. I think I fail the book sometimes because I need to be coaxed out of my intellectualism.
Are there any books you have ever faked reading?
Walt Whitman. I read just enough of Whitman to get what I need and get out. William Blake. I am not sure I’ll ever see a reason to need to read Blake.
How do you prefer to read? Electronic or print?
Print, absolutely. I had Kindle on tour in Europe a while ago — it meant I didn’t have to carry as many books — but I left it somewhere. Kind of a Freudian slip, I guess. I love the tactile pleasure of holding a book.
If you had the chance to have lunch with three authors, living or dead, who would they be?
James Hillman, Robert Musil, and Ivan Illich. In the past year, Illich has been the biggest influence on me.