Sometimes, we forget things. Most of the time, the things that we forget are small enough; I forget to put my mobile in my pocket, or to attend a meeting, or to bring along that vital piece of paper... The world makes its predictable, irritating fuss and then we forget all about it because these things do not truly matter. Other things that we forget have more impact, and the worst of this is that we seldom notice that the memory is gone – one forgets the tiny, silver finger ring given by an elderly relative, the words to a once beloved song, or an afternoon spent picking blackberries as a child. Little by little, as we lose these things, it is as though our very selves are melting into forgetfulness.
But the truth of the matter is, these things are not gone – one will find the finger ring, buried in the jewellery box, catch the strands of a familiar melody or see that break of brambles in the autumn light with the breeze coming from the west and we will recall. Not simply the event that had slipped away, but a whole host of circumstances, emotions, people who we believed had vanished from the world, or, at the very least, our minds.
Even though working with texts is my main occupation, sometimes – as a writer and a reader – I forget things too. It is easy, too easy, to forget how rare good writing is; I don't mean reasonable writing, the 'enjoyable with a few moments of sparkling prose' kind of good, I mean the good that stops you and makes you think and makes you live again. I'm talking about the kind of good that gives the reader that strange, soaring, swooping sensation; the kind of good where one word, one phrase, one expression can be so totally and irrefutably beautiful, that we just have to stop and read it again, aloud, for the benefit of the entire room.
John Crowley writes like that.
Right now, I am re-reading Little, Big. I re-read a lot and I am familiar with all the different ways of doing it. There are the re-reads where you seek new understanding, re-reads where you pick over familiar ground to support arguments and find answers. There are re-reads where one does it merely for pleasure, the joy of seeing again familiar words, of sinking into the prose like hot bathwater, or warmed chocolate. Then there are the re-reads that matter, the ones that are our touchstones for remembering the things we readers and writers forget. A list like that is a personal thing – books that are read many times and lent often, books that are never thrown away: Holdstock, Gaiman, Crowley...
Reading Little, Big again for the sixth (or is it seventh?) time is like drinking Chartreuse for the first time after months where only an empty bottle reminded me of pleasures past. It's too good, too fine an experience to rush; I'll drink it neat, of course I'll drink it neat, but I'll let it singe my tongue a little, I try to work it out sip by tiny sip. Fennel of course, or maybe aniseed. Mint, yes, always mint – is that angelica? Did I notice that last time? And, ah, that fierce, familiar burn and it's time for another sip... Would you like a glass? Come, you must try some. Too good, after all, to be enjoyed alone.
My Gods, John Crowley can write. And there was me, almost forgetting how it was done.