On Reading (Letters, Novel)

I start to write, and the candle flutters.

"To Rosianus Geminus, Good Health!"

I pause and turn to you, "My problem, Calpurnia, is that he is ill, and may not make it this time. How can I start my letter in response with "Good Health!" when.."

You interrupt, "He only writes to you when he is ill. Don't hesitate over the salutation, write him something light and cheery. Threaten him with a visit. Or tell him one of your stories about doctors." You mutter quietly, "That will get him out of bed."

I sigh, "Tonight I do not want to struggle though correspondence. I would rather listen to you read." I look at you hopefully.

You smile, "Remember when our foster aunt would start a story?"
"Once Upon A Time..."
or "There was an old man..."
or "One day, in a deep forest, far far away..."
or "Touch the spinning thread of destiny..."

I think back to those days, after the deaths of my parents, and the sorrow and loneliness of the world.

You hold my hand, "Back then it did not matter how a story started, we would know when the game was on, and would quiet and listen still. The story did not need to have a moral, or a purpose, or a plot. They were about gods and spirits, winds and the sea, heroes or villains, about humans or animals, about life or death. Some were serious, some sad, some silly.

When we grew up, we stopped listening and started to read for ourselves. Sometimes, that voice in our head, the one that does the reading, would still speak in the voice of our story tellers or others who helped. Someone we trusted to be in our head. But all things change. Eventually, the voice became many voices, the voice of an actor, of a friend, of a newsreader or, perhaps, just our own. 

Today, reading is second nature. We scan the words so quickly, we do not hear that voice reading the words. Alone in the words, we sometimes have no one to weigh them, no one to offer a smile when one is needed, no one to explain something hard with the twinkle of an eye or the touch of a hand. We lose that voice in the forest of the words, a world grown old and less secure."

You let the words drift and settle softly around the parchments and books in the study. For a moment I hear the sound of waves on the shore beyond. 

You laugh, and say lightly, "I have a cure. I will sit on my lover and not let you escape. I will take a book or a hymn to the gods or a letter, and read it to you. I will taste each word. Watch your eyes. Talk about it. Let the magic back into your worlds."

I sigh, and look at the pile of correspondence still sitting on the tray in front of me, "That will not help me answer poor Rosianus's complaint. Or the pile of letters from all my other..."

You supply the words I would not say myself, "Your less successful friends? Or is that too harsh? Perhaps it should be those who only think to write to you when they are on their back drinking foul mixtures from their quacks."

I shake my head and gently remonstrate, "I never think of friends in such a manner, and not all doctors are frauds. Some are well versed in lore and..."

You put your hands over my eyes, "It is not mere chance that the God Apollo, the patron god of medical practitioners, is known for deceit. He tricked his sister, the hunter Artemis, into killing her lover Orion."

You whisper,
"She raises the sights to her eye once more
Holding her breath against the cold night air
Her love, and the stars that turn above her
Slowly dim as pale light crowds the near horizon
Close by, on water's edge, shadows start to move
Ice cracks on water's edge, sharp light creases forest edge
Alone in the cold, she feels old age stalking her"

You hold me tight against the night, candle smoke drifting through my open study, until I ask, "What will become of us? The Gods will look askance at you remembering their Grecian forms."

You laugh, "Scribble my love. Tell Geminus about the time you had a mild cold, and planned a hot bath."

I took a deep breath and search for the time, any time, I felt sick with something mild. Instead I remembered the fever laying heavy on my heart.

"I wanted that bath. Until I saw the doctors mumbling between themselves. I asked them to explain themselves, but shuffling feet and looking sideways they all conceded eventually that it was probably quite ok for me to have the bath. But, instead of lowering myself into the water, I bent to self doubt, and ignorance."

You let out a high delighted giggle, "Suggest through your example, Geminus exercises a little more self-control, less Apollo's glance causes yet another misfortune."


Geminus was one of Pliny's legal advisors when Pliny held office as Consul in 100AD and remained in Pliny's circle of friends, although the tone of the letters (especially the one being constructed in this vignette) remains one of instruction.

Reading by oneself is a curse of the modern world rather than Plinys. Back then, the construction of letters and reading involved a great deal more spoken communication with the words, and open discussion (with a secretary, or Calpurnia). It is this contrast which gives rise to this fragment.

The throw away "less successful friends" was coined a little time back by a commentator on Pliny's letters. In reading the corpus of his letters, i am aware that he writes to a large number of people, of every station, and in lots of different circumstances. He constantly demonstrates engagement with all, and sometimes takes risks and provides financial assistance to some, but just as often he seeks or accepts advice from all.  There are certainly times when he is short or impatient but these are an exception.

(This is part of a novel under construction based on Pliny the Younger's Letters. (Book 7, 1))


Popular Posts