I was an hour early to see Karl Ove Knausgaard speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It turned out that three women were earlier than me, so I got in line; luckily there were benches, so everyone sat down. I pulled a book out and started reading when an older man shuffled over, sat down next to me, and started reading the paper. We were sitting there for about 30 minutes without talking, which I now deeply regret.
It was about then that the line had snaked around through the retractable belt barriers, and since the benches were only on one side of the waiting area, only some of the people were able to sit down – everyone else stood and, I fancied, glared at us. I began to feel the discomfort that comes from being conspicuously privileged in some way that you can’t really control and gives you a decided advantage over others.
“I feel a bit like we’re in first class,” I said to the man when he looked up.
“You know, I was just thinking the exact same thing!” he said.
And we were off. It helped that we were in close proximity to each other, and that we were both there to see Knausgaard, but our conversation didn’t even really touch on Scandinavian literature. He had been a university professor of post-colonial literature in Canada for a long time, and had retired a few years ago after a career rotating between Indian, African and South American books and stories. He’d lived in India, too, and had traveled around the world, and had known kings and queens and maharajas. I was actually a bit annoyed when Knausgaard came on stage; it was far more interesting talking to Geoffrey than listening to a man who is considered to be one of the greatest living writers in the world.
(Not to say Knausgaard was boring – just boring in comparison.)
But with this wealth of knowledge, and a lifelong love of learning, and someone who had read lots of the same things I had and who seemed to be incredibly bright, I asked him: if he was to recommend one book to read from his teaching, what would it be? He thought for maybe two seconds and then answered: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. We exchanged contact information and I told him I’d get the book.
Later, when he’d come over to brunch at our apartment, he said that he’d been going to the Book Festival for years and had met all sorts of wonderful people but nothing ever came of all of those meetings. I think it probably took me three hours to get the book, and maybe two more minutes to text him about it; and we were off. Why is it that adults find it so hard to start friendships? What is it about being older that makes it so that we put up barriers to new, wonderful people? Because I could have said the same thing: I feel like I meet all sorts of people and then, out of every 100 that I talk to, maybe I intentionally make plans to see one again. That might be because there aren’t that many fascinating people in the world, but I don’t think that’s the case; I think it’s just follow-up. I need to reach out and be friendlier, because the people I meet could turn out to be real diamonds.
Anyway, I tried hard to read Kim before I saw Geoffrey again, and then only got 42% of the way through before he came to brunch; it took me another week to finish it. I’m still trying to process it – it was occasionally frustrating, occasionally hilarious, but always brimming with life and vitality and excitement. It is an epic that I’m sure Joseph Campbell would have appreciated (and probably had some tims for improvement on, too); there were parts that reminded me of Mark Twain and Kafka, too. I was sure – sure – that the Lama was going to turn out to be some sort of spymaster, manipulating everyone throughout the whole book, but that wasn’t the case. And in many ways, it felt like the Flashman series took cues from Kim, with a lot more misogyny and perhaps more coherent writing.
But I enjoyed it immensely, and I can’t wait to actually talk about it with Geoffrey in person. Books. Books! It makes me think: Tim Feriss never asks, “What is the television show you’ve watched most, and why? Or what are one to three television shows that have greatly influenced your life?” He asks about books. I like to think that the reason is that it takes more effort to read a book someone recommends; it shows that you value their advice, and taste, in a way that watching a television show doesn’t, for some reason. What would yo do if you found out what Theresa May’s favourite television show was? Would you watch it?
Wait…thanks, Google. Theresa May likes NCIS. I don’t even know what that is. But does it seem like a good investment of time to watch it? Would you choose to watch it specifically because Theresa May likes it? For most people, the answer is probably “no” – either a) because you don’t think Theresa May has good taste, or b) because honestly, most people don’t make television choices based on the tastes of individuals they admire – they make television choices based on what they like. But book recommendations from people we admire – Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, any of the guests on Tim Feriss’ podcast – can move a book into the publishing stratosphere.
A quick Google search reveals a few other shows that famous/wealthy/powerful people also watch. None of these seem compelling. I haven’t had a TV since 1997 and I am very biased.
And I digress: I thought Kim was good, and I’m hoping a long conversation with Geoffrey will convince me that it is great, and I’m thankful both for his recommendation and the budding friendship. Books.