Book-changing lives

by Terence MacNamee

My thoughts turn to Davos, just a few miles up the road from where I live. Now what do you think about when you think of Davos? The WEF. Yes, it is just over. What was it about this year? Who cares? It is such a non-event that there is little to report, except that this time Mr Xi put in an appearance. It was the annual opportunity for the élites to shake their heads over a world out of control. They came. They talked. They left again. And nothing changed.

But that is not what I want to discuss. I want to talk about a book, a story that happened in Davos. And about the strange properties that book seems to have. The book in question is Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (or, The Magic Mountain). To know what it is about, you have to know about what made Davos famous long before WEF: the air. The pure, bracing Alpine air was supposed to be very good for tuberculosis patients, and so, in the Belle Époque, Davos was the European capital of sanatoria. The novel tells the story of a young German fellow who goes there on a three week visit and ends up staying for seven years, only leaving when the First World War breaks out.

This is a very long book, and you don’t start reading it lightly. I first read it as a teenager, and thought it was marvellous and profound. About ten years later I read it again, and found it marvellous again, but this time for different reasons. In fact, I read it every ten years or so, and every time it seems like a different book. I see things in it I didn’t see before. I see parts of the story I didn’t notice before. It amazes me that a book can keep changing like that. There it is, sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, seemingly inert, and yet when you pick it up ten years later, it has changed and become a different book. It is as if the author has been surreptitiously adding new chapters or putting them in place of old ones. Or as if the book itself was alive, somehow regenerating itself and growing, all that time on the shelf when no-one was reading it! You have to give it time, mind you. If you looked at it after a week, or a month, or a year, you would not detect any change. You have to leave the book for ten years. Then it has time to do all that magic stuff that printed books are not supposed to be able to do.

We talk about “life-changing books”. Indeed, the highest praise for a book is to say “it changed my life!” But I would want to talk about “book-changing lives”. Instead of saying “the book changed my life” I would have to say “my life changed the book”. Just imagine that: merely by the fact of ten years being added to your age, the book changes. I feel in the presence of a great mystery, one involving a strange, unsuspected alchemy of books and those who read them.

So there you are. A new buzz-phrase. I give it to you for what it is worth: “book-changing lives”.