Reading Toynbee

Perhaps there’s nothing you have to do and nowhere you have to be. You’re on your own, so you’ve only yourself to worry about. But what is there to worry about when you’ve only yourself to worry about?

A quiet spot of reading. I’m usually a noisy reader. I cry out, I laugh, I write hasty notes in the margins. But what would it be to just read? Is it possible to sit and be still and just listen?

Would I even be aware of what I was reading? Reading is usually a conversation. I react. I chime in. What could it mean to read a book in silence?

Thinking, perhaps? But no, to think is to surprise yourself, to react and respond to what you discover. Thinking is a noisy process too. Thinking is not the same as being still and silent.

A time to stop. There is nowhere you need to be, nothing to think about. When I pick up the book and start reading, the words are already familiar to me. And whatever I don’t understand I already know is irrelevant, it’s not for me, and I can let it pass. “What we cannot speak about …” I am happy not to understand. It’s not my business, for now at least, in this moment.

Arnold J Toynbee has his own concerns and his own character. He says things I can’t agree with. And usually in my noisy reading I assume I’m supposed to agree, and I become obstinate, and I scribble exclamation marks and questions in the margins. But now I watch him speak and I smile, and I learn what sort of person he must have been to say these things. I enjoy him, as the narrator of his own story. I reserve judgement.

I still write in the margins, it’s an old habit. But I pause before I write. And what I write is appreciative, not combative. I note the story that Toynbee is telling, and I try to enjoy it. It’s a tale of a vast empire that brought peace and justice to the world, but is now in a time of trouble, and probably decline. It’s a fabrication like any other.

Slowly I’m building the picture piece by piece. I think back on my own past wrongheadedness, and wonder at the ways I must be wrongheaded still. I’ll look back and shake my head at what I’m writing now. And I forgive myself and I have no regrets, just as Toynbee now, in his grave, regrets nothing.

There’s nothing for me to do here. I know this well enough already. What I don’t understand is not for me. I listen as I would listen to a friend on a late evening, through a pleasant drunken haze.

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2 Responses to Reading Toynbee

  1. Hi Lee.

    Which of his books are you reading?

    Take care —

    Neil S.


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