Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

11 thoughts on “Engaging with a Book

  1. While there may be not only two, but several ways to read a book; I agree with your approach and find myself enchanted and invigorated by the best authors I’ve read. The fictions of Woolf, Faulkner, Mann, or Dostoyevsky are some that inspire my own immersion in their world of ideas. The depth of meaning in the works of these and others rewards multiple readings and results in further contemplation.

    • Wolf is a good example of a writer I will, time permitting, eventually read to completion. A great writer’s books (novels, diaries, letters etc.) form a single unified body of work.

  2. This was a fascinating post. You seem to be hinting at the possibility that there is a bad form of escapism and immersion associated with reading as well. Have you read G. Dyer’s great essay on the ‘Mir syndrome’?

    • Yes. I thought it essential to read everything Dyer wrote but, in his case, for reasons I must give more thought to, the fascination faded. I recognise Dyer’s Mir Syndrome; thankfully i don’t suffer from it, as it sounds like a dire ordeal.

  3. I saw this post and tweeted about it last night, but I was on my phone and find it a clumsy tool for writing a comment, so I’m back visiting and rereading this now.
    I certainly agree that some writers inspire complete immersion. Although I find that perhaps I had more time and inclination to do it when I was younger, in my teens and twenties – I wonder if I am less likely to be a completist now because I can no longer whole-heartedly endorse all of a person’s thinking, or if I simply lack the time to engage deeply with an author.
    I wonder if the ‘spectating from afar’ also includes the reading for entertainment and forgetting quickly thereafter. Books which are escapist but not made to mull over.

    • I’m the opposite in that I rarely thought about immersing myself in a single writer’s work in my twenties and thirties. It is something that came later, a realisation perhaps that there aren’t that many truly great writers, certainly hundreds rather than thousands.

      Of those writers I read to completion, there is as much that interests me in those parts of their thinking I cannot endorse as those that mirror my own thoughts. That’s why these writers end up feeling like friends, of a sort.

  4. ” thankfully i don’t suffer from it, as it sounds like a dire ordeal.”

    Oooh..that was a poor one, but I’ll make a note of it in my diary.

    But does it have to be an ordeal? The tree of life, the tree of knowledge?

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