Reading And Relationships: Uncomfortable Metaphors

After the merest formal education, Neville Cardus used public libraries to learn the things he thought he should know. He was still a boy then but he wanted to improve himself and he was aware that the resources to do just that were available if he took the time to use them. His journalistic career included musical criticism and cricket writing and he was peerless at both, working for many years as the Guardian’s most famous correspondent.

It is a well-known story: the child who reads everything in the library once she or he has discovered the power of reading and realised that the only limits when you become a reader are your own. The same child is usually exposed to very little literature at home and is thus more desperate for new material to read. And the same child finds that reading, and by extension cultivation of the mind, may be the best method of rising above their reduced circumstances and finding a way out of poverty, and this also acts as a spur to the thirst for knowledge.

But it isn’t just knowledge. It is also a yearning to expand the horizons, intellectually and imaginatively. To experience the great stories and, perhaps, to learn something about how the great writers wrote their stories. For this story is about writers in general but about novelists in particular. It is about how they are formed.

And it makes perfect sense. It is logical on so many levels, not least of which are the experience of freedom and independence, and nourishing the imagination.

It is true of me, in some ways, although I don’t fit the profile.

There were many books in the house and my education was a good liberal education full of ideas and intellectual inquiry. Money was spent on my education and academic success, of a kind, came as the result of work put into research and study. There was one day, however, when I was supposed to be reading about something else in Fisher Library at Sydney University, making notes for an upcoming essay on something or other, and instead I found myself tracking down books I had heard about but never read before. It was my first exposure to Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade (some of the books on my desk that day contained raunch, but they were literature so it didn’t count), and there must have been others but their titles escape me now. The seed for this independent afternoon of study had been planted earlier – perhaps a year or so earlier – when I had found a book called The Invention Of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm. It was an accident, finding this work was completely unplanned, but the essays in this volume were fascinating and invited the reader to ask questions about many cultural practices we take for granted. From then on if a book seemed interesting I would remove it from the shelf and take it with me. Mostly the extras – the books which weren’t part of my research – had looked intriguing but failed to deliver when I got back to my desk. But not always. A collection of Apocrypha, which contained incidents from the less well-known gospels that didn’t seem familiar from my poor recall of what was in the Bible really got me thinking. Jesus performing magic was a strange and wonderful idea, but the questions thus provoked were more important, and what is the academic life if it isn’t questioning?

When university finished for the first time the program of reading continued. Again it was an attempt to fill in gaps. Medieval romances and the Canterbury Tales and Ovid’s love poems and more Nietzsche followed, as well as works of more recent fiction, although it must be said that my novel-reading list is not as long as many others of my age and educational background. But that’s OK. It’s something to add to as you go, and you never finish.

What this thing was supposed to be about though was comparing reading attitudes. The stuff about making one’s own reading list and identifying extra work necessary to be the fully rounded, cultured person you want to be is a partial explanation of my own attitude. My attitude could almost be called mercenary. Perhaps that’s not the right word. In one way it’s the attitude of the terminally ill person or maybe the person who is going blind and they are racing against the clock and so when they finish a book they start another one immediately. (I don’t read very quickly though, so the analogy only tells part of the story.) The other thing, and it’s hard to admit, is that I almost don’t like books. Almost. That needs an explanation: another analogy. There are men who say they love women and the evidence for this love is that they have a string of relationships and hardly ever spend very much time with a woman before that relationship is over and the next one has begun. But they don’t really love women. They love sex or they love being in love, but it’s probably sex that they love, because if they loved women they would spend more time with them and get to know them and learn about relationships beyond the conquest and the physical dimension. It seems to me that I’m a bit – a tiny bit, I hope – like this with books. There is a genuine moment of satisfaction in completing a book, conquering it, and discarding it and moving on. Part of this is the being in a hurry thing and the desire to better oneself, but another part, and it can be a big part, is a snobbish satisfaction that finishing a certain work will provide something else to brag about or at least to feel smug about and that, just maybe, there wasn’t all that much true enjoyment in the reading of it at all.

Countering this, I read for punctuation and technical aspects of writing, and this forms a level of appreciation alien to most people reading the latest popular novel. Some people never reread again and again a beautiful sentence, even out of context, and just simply wonder at the elegance and majesty which can be produced by putting words on a page. It’s transporting, if only fleetingly.

This is an exaggeration. But I am trying to understand. We all read books we like more than other books and books we like less. But I wish I could enter more fully into the emotional and imaginative realm of a writer’s story and not want to come out. I wish I could be sad at the completion of a book rather than happy. Sometimes at least.

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Published in: on November 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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