McKinley Valentine (and Italo Calvino) on how reading changes the past

If on a winter’s night a whippet

I want to share a quote with you that I think about a lot.

It’s from a book called Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino, towards the end when it starts getting philosophical.

“A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, “How could I have lived without reading it!” and also, “What a pity I did not read it in my youth!” Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.”

What it means is something that is both completely obvious and completely impossible: the present changes the past.

Impossible because that is not the direction time flows in (don’t @ me quantum physicists), but obvious because of course new information changes how you see the past. Like: being diagnosed with ADHD made me look back at previous events and understand them very differently, I can see the pattern in what used to be a bunch of disparate challenges and modes of thinking.

Or: you learn what a healthy relationship looks like, and you suddenly realise your past relationships were very much not healthy.

Also, we know that human memories aren’t static, like files that are stored and retrieved, they’re recreated every time and change all the time, without even having the decency to let you know they’ve changed.

That Mr Palomar quote makes it easier for me to feel like one’s past isn’t dead, it’s still a living resource, which makes it easier not to feel too desperate about the passing of time.

In Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (which I finally got around to reading like a week ago, but then it is of little importance whether a person reads a book early or late), he says that we shouldn’t think of the past as spent, and only the future as having value. Instead, your past is a locked treasury, in which you can store away years and achievements, safe and untouchable. And that you shouldn’t view aging as running out of time, but with satisfaction at having stacked away more and more things into your treasury.

Which kind of suggests the opposite of the Mr Palomar quote, that your past can’t be changed by your present, but idk, you’re allowed to rummage around in your storehouse and rearrange things, I don’t think that makes the ideas incompatible.

McKinley Valentine – The Whippet #131

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...