Whenever I visit New York, I spend hours walking around Manhattan. A favorite stop used to be the East West Living Bookstore at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street (sadly, it closed its doors in 2010). It was a mystical place that sold incense and other spiritual accessories, along with a wide selection of books about depth psychology I couldn’t find anywhere else in those pre-Amazon days.
One sunny afternoon while I was searching for a book by Carl Jung, I spotted a brightly colored display of brand-new paperbacks on a countertop. Curious, I walked over to take a look. It was a set of books by Annie Besant.
Annie Besant was a British political activist and author I had encountered in my Shaw studies. She was a revolutionary thinker who was far ahead of her time (1847-1933). (Heck – she would probably be ahead of her time if she were living today.)
Shaw – a revolutionary thinker himself – had been romantically entangled until her until she broke his heart by giving up politics for theosophy, a mystical approach to enlightenment. Her writing created a minor sensation for a time back in the late 1800s and then fell into obscurity.
But there in front of me was a sparkling display of her books, looking as if they’d just been published. It was as if I’d stepped into a time machine. I abandoned my search for the book by Jung and stumbled to the door.
When I stepped outside, I was sure I was going to bump into a youthful Shaw and some of his friends on the sidewalk. I staggered down Fifth Avenue, oblivious to taxis, pedestrians, and flashing DON’T WALK signs, until modern-day New York finally reclaimed my consciousness.
All writers are time travelers. That doesn’t mean that we need an extensive background in history and literature. It does mean we’re alive on some level we can’t explain and stirred by things incomprehensible even to those nearest and dearest to us.
And it means we’re constantly tossed back and forth between the need for self-discipline – lots of it – and the necessity for wandering down twisting streets that apparently lead nowhere.
I would have been a much better college student if I’d spent less time listening to the Beatles, mooning over Richard Burton, and standing in line for cheap tickets to see Nureyev and Fonteyn. And I would be a better Shaw scholar if I’d systematically read all the major works by and about GBS instead of gobbling up books by Jung, Fromm, and Hillman.
But I wouldn’t be as good a writer.