A Kind of Meditation

What emerges, I think, is a kind of meditative work — a work of thought to try to understand, and fail to understand, what it is that reading is, what reading does, how to read, what to read. An act of thinking about books that sinks into its relation with memory.

I’ve been trying to reconstruct a mental library of everything I read, or at least those that left fragments and impressions in what seems to be memory. There was a boy who visits his sister in north London. This is what I remember. In that book I came across the term golden arm for the first time. Its druggy milieu induced two decades of casual stupor. An incident in a north London pub. That is all that remains in the fragile spider’s web of memory. It isn’t enough to find the book again, but enough to compel the quest. There is a feminist alien who visits earth seeking vengeance, proto-Despentes. All I remember is the cover, but that memory too is precarious. Scenes from a long immersion in science fiction, even less is preserved, insufficient to fuel a search. I should break away from a pointless elegiac nostalgia; mature elegies that take on a life of their own.

This meditative work also an act of memory, to retain more of a book than nostalgia, a patient engagement that allows a work to settle more deeply, an ethic of contemplation if that is not too serious or overly pompous. That is the danger. He is very earnest, never praise in this decaying culture. Ten years of trying to be receptive enough to write something of what I read, but in the end it does seem pompous, because what I came to understand the more I read is how little it is possible to comprehend, and less so to share that comprehension and appreciation. I read to catalyse change and transformation, to keep open an ethical relation with the world and the other.

More and more, it is quotes and fragments I share, a still unsatisfactory way of providing an ethical, aesthetic experience of what I read, without the limited ambition of interpretation. It is a way of communicating atmosphere and mood, encountering the otherness of a text that seduces in some way. It is I hope a way of yielding and gesturing towards literature that is a source of energy. After ten years it is still an experiment, where conventions and certainties of how to read and write are still muzzy.


6 thoughts on “A Kind of Meditation

  1. A stimulating meditation on the ‘ethical, aesthetic experience’ of reading. Proustian, perhaps. Been reading Javier Marías, Berta Isla, who also ponders the nature of knowledge, identity, maybe memory, while tinkering with a desultory plot. I’ve not often read an account as lucid as this post of the way reading books “shapes” the reader – something transcendent happens, and the reader is changed in some way.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’ve wondered about Javier Marías, in particular Berta Isla, perhaps I shall try it.

  2. For some years now, I’ve appreciated your ruminations on reading, how much I enjoy them. Memories are so evanescent, especially of the worlds we create as we read. But some do stick, albeit fragmentary, and those memories may not be the same kinds of memories that stick for another reader of the same text. One thing that’s quite precious, I think, is when we share an enthusiasm with another reader for a writer or a book that remains a kind of touchstone also for the appreciation that we have not just for an author or a text but for the reader with whom we share that enthusiasm. The immediate texts and authors that come to mind are Denton Welch, Pascal Quignard, Djuna Barnes, Sebald, Hilbig, Christa Wolf, Joyce, Beckett and more that don’t come immediately to mind given the nature of memory and false memory, too, which is also interesting. Something to recognise, too, are those authors, that remain outside our shared reading with other readers… the impossibility of sharing everything… that seems it could turn into some kind of nightmare of Funes the Memorious. I enjoyed the fragmentary nature of this post. Into mind right now come thoughts of the metaphysical twists and turns of wrestling with shared and unshared texts and authors. Recently, I read an essay on the Unbounders Boundless website by a friend of mine that puts in such a wonderfully succinct way an appreciation of the creative act of reading, reading as an active not as a passive occupation. I think you’d like it a lot so here’s the link just in case: buff.ly/2NhQ7zC). I’ve been a little disengaged recently from the twittersphere and from reading blogs and I think that’s likely to continue for a while, but reading this lovely post of yours, I just had to say something. Many thanks.

    • Thanks, Des, for the link to that poignant piece. I am pleased that you liked this post. I couldn’t agree more about reading as an active pursuit – I’ve never thought it passive.

  3. Yes. It’s complicated to write about our own histories as readers, I think, because the reader changes along the way (partly as a result of having read), and from where we are now, at present, it’s hard to recall who we were except in fragments. But I think that’s ok. Readers who have thought deeply about reading, and tried to recall themselves through that experience, will understand and find the fragmentary, meditative approach more authentic than a totally worked-out theory that purports to sum it all up. We can’t be summed up in such a way, and neither can our lifetimes of reading.

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