Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

8 thoughts on “Solace Through Reading

  1. A Columbia philosophy professor Irvin Edman said: “…there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide everything in two and those who don’t.”
    I’ve just bought Infinite Fictions as a Kindle download. Very unusual for me but it was so cheap! I’m still reeling from the fact that there are so many writers I’ve never even heard of let alone read and I thought I was quite informed about contemporary fiction and philosophy. Lots to discover.
    This is the first time I’ve posted a comment on any blog. I really want to thank you for also giving me lots of writers to discover. Even more important, I find your defence of reading as a worthwhile activity in itself very sustaining.


    • Thank you, John. I am delighted by your comment, and pleased that you bought David Winters’ book. His engagement with literature is fresh and free of pomposity.


  2. Pingback: The Profound Pleasure of Reading | Time's Flow Stemmed

      • He runs KCRW’s Bookworm and I think also writes for the LA Times though I haven’t read any of his reviews. He’s been interviewing people for years now and the Bookworm archive has in-depth interviews with WG Sebald, William H. Gass, David Markson, David Foster Wallace etc etc. He’s noted as being a very perceptive reader – I think you’d enjoy his conversations. He’s a bit of an irritating character, but you can’t hate him too much because he so clearly loves literature.

        Have a look, there’s almost definitely something you’ll enjoy here:


  3. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2015 | Time's Flow Stemmed

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