Whenever you read a book and come across any wonderful phrases which you feel stir or delight your soul, don’t merely trust the power of your own intelligence, but force yourself to learn them by heart and make them familiar by meditating on them, so whenever an urgent case of affliction arises, you’ll have the remedy ready as if it were written in your mind.
– Petrarch (imagining a conversation with Augustine) from Alberto Manguel’s History of Reading.
The gemstone in this month’s Believer is an article on the construction of the sentence. Gary Lutz writes passionately and eruditely:
The aim of the literary artist, I believe, is to initiate the process by which the words in a sentence no longer remain strangers to each other but begin to acknowledge one another’s existence and do more than tolerate each other’s presence in the phrasing: the words have to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub off on each other, feel each other up.
Yesterday’s reading of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts provided an evocative example:
Settling at a heavy inn-table, thawing and tingling, with wine, bread, and cheese handy and my papers, books and diary all laid out; writing up the day’s doings, hunting for words in the dictionary, drawing, struggling with verses, or merely subsiding in a vacuous and contented trance while the snow thawed off my boots.
As Sontag identified in her essay Where the Stress Falls:
… the frontier between prose and poetry has become more and more permeable — unified by the ethos of maximalism characteristic of the modern artist: the create work that goes as far as it can go. The standard that seems eminently appropriate to lyric poetry, according to which poems may be regarded as linguistic artefacts to which nothing further can be done, now influences much of what is distinctly modern in prose.
On the one hand, the literary object has no substance but the reader’s subjectivity … But on the other hand, the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings and to reflect them towards us … the work exists only at the exact level of his [the reader] capacities; while he reads and creates, he knows that he can always further in his reading, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible … Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work.
Reading literature is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer exerts a degree of control over the reader’s interpretation. Is this control more or less significant than the part a reader plays in determining the meaning of a narrative? In part this will depend on the skill of the writer’s intention and narrative style. The writer guides but whether the reader grasps the significance of what he reads will depend on experience, imagination, knowledge and ability. Returning to a text after the passing of a decade inevitably presents fresh ways of exploring concepts and ideas.
My reading is impelled by serendipity and a desire to inhabit, however briefly, other selves. It is in part to create meaning, but also a way to observe life through another filter. Great literature provokes an aesthetic and emotional reaction. What to make of a particular author’s imagery and symbolism? What was the writer’s intention? How to read more closely and create understanding more profoundly?
It is my hope to participate in a conversation about literature, narrative style and meaning, about how to read more profoundly and to discover fresh sources of inspiration.