I’ve been joking with the others in my workshop that I’m on the Reading Recovery programme this year. Ha ha. But when I had my first meeting with Damien, and tried presenting this as an amusing quirk — ‘Oh! and did I mention? I don’t read, really’ — he did look a bit alarmed. Writers are all so different, he said, but the one thing all writers must also be is readers. And I said, ‘Well, yes, OK, I’m not saying this is a good thing.’
I remember once, a few years ago, I asked my friend Amelia what she was planning to do that evening. She said, ‘I think I’ll go home and read my book’. ‘My book’. That phrase — the ‘my’ and then the ‘book’ — made me feel a pang of resentment. I don’t have a book. Even when I’m reading something, I don’t think of it as ‘my’ book, but rather, as ‘a’ book.
So I have been thinking about my relationship with books and clearly it is not an easy one. I feel guilty for not reading enough, and jealous of people who do read. I admit that yesterday when I saw a woman on the 23 bus with José Saramago’sBlindnesscradled on her lap, I actually hated her.
I’m not sure how this happened, because at other points in my life I have been a reader. So, while it is tempting to make sweeping gestures, to arc my hand across my life to date and say I didn’t read, in fact, I must have. I mean, whenever I’m at parties where books are being discussed, I seem to have read some of them. Patently, I have read and continue to read all kinds of things, some of them books, some of them even fiction. I think I say I don’t read because for some reason I see reading as a race I am losing, and prefer to disqualify myself rather than lag at the rear. Of course, it’s not helpful to think of reading in this way — I know it’s not helpful. But as often in life I find myself doing it anyway.
I read as a child and as a teenager (though I did do that slightly weird thing in my teens of becoming obsessed with Jane Austen, and reading Pride and Prejudice over and over again. At one point I think I was reading it about once a month — what was that about? I later learned that I wasn’t unique in this — and I wonder why people fixate on that book in particular). I must have been reading at university because I studied English for two years. But even then I think I was developing the feeling that somehow I hadn’t read enough, or enough of the right things. When I left university I lived for a year in Melbourne. I had a notebook, and asked every new person I met which was the best book they had ever read, noted them all down, and then systematically worked my way through them. (By the by, a couple of books got two mentions in my notebook, but Nabakov’s Lolita was the only one to get three; and even now, twenty years later, if someone were to ask me for a title to write in a notebook of their own, I think Lolita would be the one I would give them.)
The following year, backpacking through Canada and Europe, I suspect I must have read. At least, I remember sitting in the Winnipeg public library, minus 27 degrees outside, with a collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood; and later lying on a stretcher bed in a sports hall in Strakonice, Czechoslovakia, six months after the Velvet Revolution, sun streaming through the window, reading Milan Kundera. The world seems to have closed in on me since then. I guess when you are young and you are backpacking you are open to the world and open to books and you just absorb a vast amount of both.
It’s probably over the last few years that I have started to think of reading as a problem, and have somehow opted out. Although even in the midst of this long drought, there have been little oases: the year Eli was a baby, I read quite a bit. But since Bessie was born I’ve been tired much of the time and I reckon I’ve probably averaged only a novel or two a year.
This year I’m going to try to read more but also worry about reading less. Although I’m writing a collection of short stories, I’m not planning to restrict my reading to short stories. I think I’ll just read whatever I happen to feel like at the time; not because I ought to, but because I want to. And if I get to the end of the year and consider myself a reader again, I’ll be happy.
This is Charles Baxter, in his essay Against Epiphanies:
I’ve just had a major revelation.
These words typically fill me with dread. I have spent much of my life among the officially unconverted, but even they have their secret faiths and scrappy household gods. They, too, have visions. In social situations, piety is sometimes attached to some unusual articles of belief, and listening to descriptions of those beliefs can be a tricky business. The listener may never find the correct tone in which to respond, especially when agreement or disagreement are somehow beside the point.
I know what he means. There is something alarming about being caught in the full glare of someone else’s epiphany. The believer can seem scarily intense, even crazed — there is no possibility of dialogue on this issue as they have already reached their conclusion and merely want to share (enforce?) it with (on) another. I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. I have a fond memory of a particular Manchester club, some time in the 1990s, at which I had a drug-fuelled insight into something or other: and here I am, the night is over, the lights have come up, and I am urgently explaining myself to one of those solid, beefy bouncer types, who is being surprisingly patient, smiling even at the familiarity of this whole scene, in which I am playing the young raver, and he is playing — with good humour — her reluctant audience; and I am aware of this myself, aware of his smile, and what it means, but am ploughing ahead anyway.
On the other hand, I think personal epiphanies aren’t always as flimsy as Baxter suggests. Sometimes they mark a genuine deepening of understanding, one of those little landslides, a small collapse in the epistemic terrain, which happens when the instability has become too much and something has to give. Because belief seems to work like this: we just absorb and absorb and absorb and tolerate and tolerate and tolerate, and then the ground shifts. I remember a school assembly when I was maybe six years old, in which our principal, Mrs Fleming, was giving us A Talk About Road Safety. At some point she said something like: Now, you might think that getting run over is something that happens to other people, that it won’t happen to you. But it actually could happen to you. This statement was an arrow that hit some kind of philosophical bull’s eye for me. It could happen to me. I am not invincible. I looked around the school hall aghast, expecting to see other horrified faces; but my classmates were still looking blandly towards the front of the hall. And I thought: But this changes everything. And it did. I mean, I still have faith in that particular epiphany.
Baxter goes on to question the pre-eminence of the literary epiphany, which he believes is over-used and has become almost formulaic: I don’t believe that a character’s experiences in a story have to be validated by a conclusive insight or a brilliant visionary stop-time moment.
I found his essay really interesting, not least because my original proposal when I applied for this course was to write a collection of stories exploring aspects of truth and belief. And I agree that the preponderance of epiphanic endings in short fiction in particular is perhaps an indication of a sort of received view about the psychology of belief… and maybe that needs to be questioned more widely. (How about a story that starts with an epiphany which is then lost/diluted/compromised?)
I’ve also been thinking about a different kind of literary epiphany, i.e. an epiphany not of a character in the fiction, but of the reader in response to the fiction. It seems to me that good literature can change the way the reader sees the world — and it may do so gradually, cumulatively, or it may do so with a sharp jolt. I remember the books which have given me that jolt, and they tend to be the books I am most passionate about, the kind of books that (with an echo of my intensity in the Manchester club) I want to insist to people that they must read. There is something peculiarly satisfying to me about that jolt, the feeling of being shocked by a realisation while at the same time feeling that somehow I knew this all along. I think a skilled author can sometimes wheel the whole Trojan Horse behind the reader’s epistemic defences without them realising — and then BAM. I love that. An example of a book that did that for me was Kazuo Ishiguro’sNever Let Me Go. There was a bit towards the end where I was thinking how very odd and unbelievable it is that these characters are focussing all their hopes on the possibility of a slight deferment of their fate (which is to have their organs removed for medical purposes and ultimately ‘complete’ or die as a result), instead of raging against the sad waste of their lives; and then it suddenly dawned on me that there is a sense in which we are all like that. Which is why I agree with this review in The Guardian:
This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn’t about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.
At the beginning of the year I decided to try reading books in parallel to avoid the problem I struck with Anne Michaels‘ Fugitive Pieces, which stalled my reading completely (I felt I couldn’t start a new book until I finished that one). But now I have gone to the other extreme and have precisely eighteen books on the go with no immediate prospect of finishing any of them; in addition, I feel like my head is going to explode. Believe me, it’s a can of worms, this reading thing. It’s like the moment you give two pounds to someone sitting on a sack outside a tube station: that’s it, the flood gates open, and you will be swallowed up in the deep endless need of the city. And so too with books: you open one, and there is never any end to it.
Damien has said the reading journal is essentially to keep us honest which immediately makes me feel guilty. I’ve got this incredible and ridiculous anxiety around how much I’ve read which is not entirely helpful — but there you go.
I thought I might get some solace from Pierre Bayard’s provocative book on reading, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Bayard classifies books as follows: unheard of book (UB), books he has skimmed (SB), books he has heard about (HB), books he has read but forgotten (FB). There are many shades of grey between knowing a book utterly (as I once knew Pride and Prejudice) and not knowing it at all. Certainly what you do with a book is kind of complicated and it is a bit to do with physically possessing and having ongoing access to the book (the books I feel most confident in claiming to have read are those which are in my book shelf at home), and a bit to do with talking about the book, and a bit to do with reading reviews of the book, and a bit to do with having started the book once but abandoned it, and a bit to do with having read the book several years ago but forgotten it, and a bit to do with having read other books of the same ilk or by the same author, and a bit to do with writing down a quote from the book that you loved and sticking it to your computer monitor and leaving it there until it becomes so sun-faded you can no longer read it.
Maybe I just need to start being a bit more shameless about the whole thing. Damien told me that he had not read Pamela, but he talked about it with disarming authority in class.
On Writing a Reading Journal
I’ve got several sections on the go in this journal at the moment — not only this entry, but also several earlier entries. It’s a slightly odd way to be writing given that the journal purports to be chronological; but I have to say I’m really enjoying it. I like the sense that the past and present are simultaneous. But it’s not only a kind of temporal profligacy, but a logical one too — because if the latter entries build on the earlier ones, I’m guilty of reconstructing the course of my reasoning in retrospect. Oh how naughty I am. How wild and crazy. How teetering on the edge of some kind of nervous collapse.
Yes, it is good that I am getting a buzz from my journal because I am having a complete breakdown at the moment about my folio. I wish I were able in the same way to work on all my stories in parallel, at great speed, under pressure, and be confident I will get there.
Earlier in this journal (earlier! Ha!) I mentioned Grace Paley’s comment that writers need to listen with two ears — one for literature and one for life. I felt I had been listening mainly with the latter — and I think this is one thing that has changed for me. I have loved our reading programme sessions, and have found I’m deeply interested in the craft of fiction and in theorisations of what it is writers do and how they do it (when Claire lent me her book The Cambridge Guide to Narrative I wanted to swallow it whole). This has been an unexpected pleasure for me this year.
…it is time to sign off. I have finished painting my footprints to this end point and, like the girls with the sad eyes in the back of the ute, they are somehow lovelier than they were in real life. If you have been paying attention, you may have noted that I have read fewer books over the course of this year than most of my classmates no doubt have; but on the other hand, I have read a lot more than I did last year, or for many years before that. I said I would be happy if I came to the end of this year and felt I was a reader again. It’s a wonderful power to be able to write such goals on the cusp of their fulfilment — because lo, yes, I do indeed consider myself a reader. A wild, haphazard, forgetful, sporadic one: but a reader.
Now, in the two months that remain, I merely need to become a writer.