Friday, May 26, 2017

Creative reading

Everybody recognizes that writing is a creative activity. Colleges even offer courses in creative writing. (This phrase has always seemed redundant to me, like offering courses in creative art.) But what about writing's partner, reading? Isn't reading also a creative activity? The fact that each of us can respond differently to the same work of literature suggests that it is.

Wendy Lesser
Two comments found in my recent reading has furthered my thinking on this subject. First, here is what Wendy Lesser says in Why I Read: "Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters' as well as the author's), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do."

Each reader completes the creation of the author. A book without a reader is like a play without an audience or a masterful painting hidden in a closet. It is the reader who interprets what a book, a poem or a story means, and because interpretations vary, each completed creation comes out differently.

Read different reviews of the same book, something I do frequently on LibraryThing, and it can seem that the reviewers are writing about different books. To them, they are different books, simply because they have responded to them so differently. What seems meaningful to one person will seem meaningless to another. A third person may miss it altogether. That's because, as Lesser puts it, none of us reads in precisely the same way.

In My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul says this about readers and the books they read: "Nobody else has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way." So it is not just a matter of how we respond to a particular book but also what books we have read previously. Our interpretation of one book will influence our interpretation of another. People like Paul and Lesser who have read a great many books are likely to give more sophisticated or creative readings to a new book than someone who has read relatively few books. If you have read one Jane Austen novel, you will feel better equipped to tackle the next one. Readers, like writers, get better with practice.

Creative reading does not just manifest itself in the reading of fiction. If this particular blog post is in any way creative it is because, within a matter of a few days, I read both that line in Lesser's book and that line in Paul's. Either comment on its own (or read months apart) might not have triggered a response in me, other than to write it down on a notecard. But read back to back as they were (perhaps even, as Paul suggests, in an order nobody else has ever read them), I was inspired to write this brief essay on creative reading.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Accidental memoirs

All criticism is a form of autobiography.
David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael, The New Yorker's film critic for many years, was once asked if she had considered writing her memoirs. "I think I have," she replied. Her response, echoed by David Shields years later, meant that when she was writing about movies, she was also writing about herself. Often, it seems, memoirs are written when writers think they are writing something else.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, has said she didn't realize her recent book, My Life with Bob, was a memoir until she heard her publisher refer to it as such. She had thought she had just written a book about the books she has read.

Lee Smith
Lee Smith's book Dimestore: A Writer's Life began as a series of articles she wrote for such publications as the Washington Post, the New York Times, House and Garden and the Independent Weekly. When these essays were assembled under one cover, they became a memoir, covering her life from girlhood to now.

Novelists often write their memoirs in the form of fiction, especially first novels. One reason second novels are often so difficult for writers is that they have already told their own story in their first novels. The second novel requires more creativity, and is thus more difficult. Smith admits as much in one of the essays in Dimestore. Her second novel was awful, she says, "as second novels sometimes are if we write them too soon, having used up our entire life so far, all the great traumas and dramas of our youth, in the first one."

Smith realizes now that all of her novels, as different as they may seem, were really about herself. "I write fiction the way other people write in their journals," she says. She quotes another novelist, Anne Tyler, as saying, "I write because I want more than one life." Different novels by the same author may tell different stories about different characters, yet each, in a sense, is a disguised memoir of that author, which is why authors' biographers devote so much attention to the published works of those authors. The trick, of course, is to separate the truth from what is truly fiction.

Other forms of writing, including blogs like this one, can also be accidental memoirs, telling life stories on the way to telling something else. Any form of self-expression (which is, by definition, the expression of self) does this.

Monday, May 22, 2017

One writer's life

The mountains that used to imprison me have become my chosen stalking ground.
Lee Smith, Dimestore

Writers can spring from anywhere, even a seemingly nothing town like Grundy, Va. Although she grew up reading books and telling stories in Grundy, it took Lee Smith several years for this realization to hit her. Until then she had wondered what the daughter of a Ben Franklin store manager living deep in coal-mining country might possibly have to write about. Now in her 70s, the author of more than a dozen novels lives in North Carolina but keeps returning to those western Virginia mountains in her mind. That place and those people, she discovered, are virtually all she has to write about, and they are more than enough.

Smith tells her story in disjointed fashion in Dimestore: A Writer's Life, mostly a collection of magazine and newspaper articles published over the past 20 years. She describes growing up in Grundy and how, at the time at least, it seemed like paradise. She tells of being her father's "doll consultant" every year at Christmas. As a child she wanted to become a saint, or at least an angel in the Christmas pageant. Neither happened. Both of her parents suffered from bouts of severe depression, and she admits her own fears of this condition. She tells of romances, marriages, children and the tragic loss of one of those children. Mostly, however, she writes about writing and, as she puts it, "the therapeutic power of language." After the death of her son, in fact, a psychiatrist wrote a prescription for her. It said only, "Write fiction every day." It was just the therapy she needed

In one of her better essays, one called "On Lou's Front Porch," she gives one of the better definitions of writing you will find. Writing, she says, "is not about fame, or even publication. It is not about exalted language, abstract themes, or the escapades of glamorous people. It is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day, it is about playing with children and listening to old people."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Consumers of books

My sort wants the book in its entirety. We need to touch it, to examine the weight of its paper and the way the text is laid out on the page. People like me open books and inhale the binding, favoring the scents of certain glues over others, breathing them in like incense even as the chemicals poison our brains. We consume them.
Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Pamela Paul
Readers, like people in general it seems, can be divided into two groups. Some people just read books for their stories or for whatever information they contain. Then they are done with them. The books can then be sold, given away, returned to the library or loaned to a friend without a care as to whether they are ever returned. Books are as disposable as empty milk cartons or used facial tissue. Once they have served their purpose, they can be discarded. Readers of this type don't even care if a book is printed on paper or if it appears electronically on some hand-held device. To them a book is not the book itself in its traditional form but what it holds.

These readers far outnumber the second kind, those among which Pamela Paul numbers herself. And which I number myself. We are those who love, and perhaps live, to touch books, to smell books and, although she does not mention it, to simply look at books. How they appear in our hands, on our shelves or even on somebody else's shelves somehow thrills us. Walking into a bookshop excites us the same way other people may be excited when they walk into a clothing store, a jewelry shop, an electronics store or a new car dealership.

For those like us, parting with a book can be a painful experience. Loaning a book, even to our most trusted friend, can cause anguish.

As Paul puts it, we want the book in its entirety. A book to us is as that ring is to Gollum: My precious! That analogy is a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The right time for the right book

You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I am sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.
Doris Lessing, quoted by Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Doris Lessing
This idea expressed by Doris Lessing, that certain books have a right time (and thus a wrong time) for us, strikes me as a continuation of the topic of my last post about the joy of reading without rules. To select the right book for us at a certain point in our lives, we need the freedom to make that choice ourselves, rather than have it imposed on us by someone else.

As much as I have enjoyed reviewing books over the past 45 years, the downside has always been this feeling of compulsion that goes with it. There is nothing legally binding here, and in most cases I have had some choice in which books I read and review. Even so, if I am sent a new book by a publisher, it should still be new when I read it. I can't very well wait five years until the time feels right for me to tackle this particular subject, author or whatever.

Members of book clubs may face an even stronger compulsion. If their club decides to discuss a certain book at next month's meeting, that is the book members should read. Never mind that they are in the mood for something lighter or darker or perhaps don't feel like reading anything at all.

The right time for the right book is not merely a question of mood. It is also a question of stage of life. As much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was a teenager, I have always been reluctant to return to it for fear my older self would not find the same depth of meaning I found there in my youth. There have been other books, most notably Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, that later lacked whatever magic they possessed when I was young. There are other books that may be meaningless to us in our youth but will be packed with significance when we read them later in our lives.

Books do have their time and place. We are blessed when we have the freedom to make that choice ourselves.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reading without rules

When you're a child, reading is full of rules. Books that are appropriate and books that are not, books that grown-ups will smile at approvingly for cradling in your arms and those that will cause grimaces when they spy you tearing through their pages.
Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer observed that "work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." You'll remember that he persuaded other children to whitewash a fence for him by pretending it was great fun. Thus work became play.

As with fences, so it is with books. It is more fun to read them when we are not obliged to do so, when it seems more like play than work.

When we are children, as Pamela Paul notes in her memoir, "reading is full of rules." Our parents and other adults try to steer us toward certain books and away from others.  We may be able to choose our own library books, but until we are considered old enough our choices are limited to a certain part of the collection or to a school library where all the books have been screened for appropriateness. Then there is all that reading assigned by teachers, something that continues right on through college.

And so it is a relief to be old enough to select our own books, to read whatever we want and to stop reading something when we decide we don't like it and don't want to read it anymore. For most of us, unfortunately, this means avoiding anything challenging or intellectually stimulating. We prefer thrillers, romances and murder mysteries to great works of literature. If not for that reading once assigned to us by high school teachers and college professors, we might never have read a Shakespeare play, a Jane Austen novel or an Emily Dickinson poem. Ideally, of course, because we once read such literature because we were required to do so and somehow liked it anyway, we will be more inclined to read something similar because we choose to do so.

I read Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a college sophomore. Now my granddaughter, in her first year of high school, is reading the same novel. But in recent years I have elected to read Austen's Persuasion, not to mention Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens and various novels by Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and other great writers. Somehow work had become play.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Think fast, or not

While reading a book blog called January Magazine the other day, I found a list of books someone started reading but could not finish. One book on that list that caught my eye was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Just a couple weeks previously I, too, had given up on this book, after reading the first nine chapters and more than 100 pages.

It is not often that I decide a book is a hopeless cause. There are some dull books I may not open again for years, but I leave them on my reading table with a bookmark in them for that future day when I might be inspired to return to them. I have not actually given up on them, or so I tell myself. Kahneman's book, however, I did give up on, as I did Nancy Mauro's novel New World Monkeys a few months ago. That book seemed brilliant in the early going, then turned tedious. So it was with Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman says we each do two kinds of thinking. He calls them System 1 and System 2, or fast and slow. System 1 amounts to first impressions, which are often wrong. System 2 thinking is slower, more methodical and more logical. It also, he says, is more likely to give us the right answer. The author tells us this very early in his book. After that he starts illustrating his point, again and again and again. Did I really need to read another 300 pages of this?

Malcolm Gladwell makes virtually the opposite point in his 2005 best seller Blink, in which he says that first impressions are often the correct ones. Like Kahneman, he makes his point early, then devotes the rest of the book to illustrating that point. Yet I found Gladwell's book fascinating, and I read every word. I'm still not sure which of them is right. I suspect fast thinking gives us the correct answer sometimes and slow thinking works best at other times, which explains why we are capable of two kinds of thinking. But I do know that Gladwell wrote the more interesting book. And so, after giving the matter some long and slow thought, I decided to abandon Kahneman's book, while keeping Gladwell's on my shelf.