Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wherein He Still Does Not Answer The Question...

Often, people will ask me what I love to read. Happens at work, even.
Co-workers always see me reading there, on my lunch breaks.
And it is amazing that I have never been able to adequately answer that question. I get all.... verklempt.
Yet, the question itself should be easy to answer.... hell, I almost LIVE to read. I desire to spend most of this day, as I did yesterday -- reading and thinking. And thinking about reading. Interacting with what I have read.
I often answer the question by saying "I like to read what I consider literature!" Or sometimes I will say "I like reading stuff that seems timeless." Or, "I like the classics." But all of those answers are not really hitting at what I truly love to read, or why I do it at all.
The truth is, I like to read stuff written by authors that are able to transcend their own limited place in this world.
I think of Margaret Atwood, for instance, and the way she can dabble so freely in the genre of dystopia, and then also write something like Alias Grace. I gravitate toward authors that have a broad scope of subject matter [like Updike, or Saramago] authors that give you that sense that they've tapped into something [the "something" is, I think, a wondrous fascination with life] and are able to speak beyond their own experience [isn't that what fiction should be, anything else being a memoir?] while giving us something that we all know to be true. A good author, I think, leads us along the path that he or she has chosen for us and all the while makes us feel like we have been here before. But we know that we, in fact, do need them to guide us. If they were to leave all of a sudden, we cannot finish the journey alone. Yet in a subtle way -- we've seen this path before, and we know it.
I think of this picture that I have hanging in, of all places, my bathroom. [Hey, I do some great reading, even in there!] I asked for it once as I was walking through a bookstore that was being run out of business by one of the new conglomerates. The proprietors were throwing everything out -- and I saw that picture and I asked if I could have it. The woman said, "Sure, take it." I was ecstatic, because I just loved that phrase, "I will go with thee and be thy guide." [photo, above]
I think that exemplifies what a good author does.
If you are reading this Bookpuddle blogpage, you are probably what I would call a true and genuine reader. With people like us, there is the added feature of what I would call cumulative understanding, when it comes to literature. One may not be able to recount every nuance, or even properly relate a plot outline from a book one read five years ago -- but there are actual cells in the brain storing that information and subtly drawing upon those memories with the result that a current read is illuminated by the faint flickers of the past. In this sense, reading [true life-long reading] is a journey, not a destination. This is why you and I will never finally read a book and say "Aha! This is it! I can now stop plodding through all these pages. I have arrived!"
It is also why novice readers cannot really appreciate the better books. There is not the wealth [the framework] of prior reading experience to buttress the interest level. It's like trying to paint the upper portions of a three-story building without having the scaffolding to climb the hell up there. It's why Shakespeare and DeLillo are not read as much in America [or the world] today as are Stephen King and James Patterson. Or Sue Grafton, working her way through the alphabet, A to Z.
I am not dissing these other writers -- I'm just suggesting that it's refreshing to see someone reading Robertson Davies, or W.G. Sebald, once in a while.
Nor am I suggesting that a good reader has to always be immersed in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky!
For instance, some of you may be aware of my own penchant for delving into what I call juvenalia every Christmas time. I truly love those times -- because, in keeping with the holiday season, it's sort of like throwing an extra scoop of gravy on a pile of mashed potatoes [stay with me, we're talking about Cipriano-fantasies here, which nearly always involve food…..] it's like a "treat" is what I am saying. Reading Winnie-the-Pooh or Wind In The Willows or Peter Nimble, etc.
But even there, in these gluttonous moments, astute readers like you and I can read such books with one eye on the nutritional value of things without which we would not be healthy, the rest of the year.
To sum up -- it is evident that I still do not quite know how to answer the question in any simple fashion.



Melwyk said...

Brilliant analysis, Cip. I like the idea of cumulative reading, of our previous reading being stored away somewhere and illuminating the current book of choice in a deeper way.

I've just been reading Rollo May's "Courage to Create", and even though it's from 1975 it's still apt. I think the reason you state for your reading is much like what he is saying about "Creativity and Encounter" -- that true art comes from an encounter by the artist with the Ineffable. This results in, as you say, "authors that are able to transcend their own limited place in this world."

Anonymous said...

Hey Cip,
I almost hate being asked what I like reading because, like you, I'm not sure how to put it exactly. I'm reading Updike right now and am loving it but had to retire to a quiet room without distractions to read more carefully. You're homie came looking for me wondering what the heck was going on and why I couldn't read in the living room with everyone, even the more hairy members of the family, It's hard to put my finger on what I like to read because as you just described so well, it's not a genre.
I'll memorise your blog and will try to repeat it word for word next time someone asks me that dreaded question.

Stefanie said...

It is a dilemma to say what we like to read isn't it? People are looking for a quick sound bite, a title or author or two, a specific genre but we can't give them that because what we like to read is so much more as you so wonderfully describe in your post. I usually stutter out Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf, literary and classic fiction. It is unsatisfying for me and judging from people's responses, I must have suddenly grown a second head or something!

Amy said...

Great post. Being asked what I like to read or what is my favorite book to me is akin to someone asking what kind of oxygen I like to breathe. It is an unanswerable question to a true reader, or maybe a question with an answer so long it would take our entire lives to speak the words.

Cipriano said...

Thank you Melwyk!
Believe it or not, I have a Rollo May book on my shelves for the past hundred years or so -- I've never read it yet. It's called Man's Search For Meaning. It's even ancient-er than yours.... published in 1953.

"C" -- which Updike are you reading? I am really loving him as an author. I'm humbled to think that anyone would memorize my blog, but of course, you jest. By "hairier" members of your family, obviously you mean Lawrence? I've seen him in a kilt!

Stefanie, I know, it actually is a hard question to answer. Sometimes I say, "I'm not much into the potboilers or best-sellers." And people give you that look -- as though you are suddenly talking about cooking utensils and really awesome places where you keep your wine!

Amy -- what a great analogy / simile. Maybe from now on I should preface all of my answers to people with the question, "How much time do you have?"

BBB said...

Well Cip I kind of understand what you mean, however, I must admit that I think you spent too much time with fiction. Of the 100,000 novels published a year only a small fraction will end up being timeless. It is better to spend your time with non-fiction and learn about the society you live in rather than trying to escape it.

Nonetheless, great article.

Cipriano said...

Thanks BBB -- I do see your point. But I get such a chemical rush from fiction, you could say I'm addicted to the adventure of it. It's true that if I combined all of my fiction-reading over the years I could have probably gone through the Encyclopedia Britannica a couple of times now. Or have become a self-taught brain surgeon or something.
But it's like so many things in life, our indulgences.
Take hamburgers, for instance. Do I eat so many of them because they are healthy? Noooooooooo!