There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.
Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.
Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?
Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.
There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.
There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.
Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.
I empathise with the idea of a personal canon falling by the wayside – I suspect my attempts at building such a thing over the years have failed because I changed as a reader. Some books and authors survived that change, and some didn’t. But I appreciate your list of authors of whom in ideal circumstances you would read everything – a good number of which I have in common with you. In one case (Woolf) I have read everything bar the essays. I sometimes wish I had had two lives – one in which I lived, and one in which I did literally nothing but read!
If I was forced to spend the rest of my time reading just one writer, it would be Woolf, but I am nowhere near your achievement. Woolf is the writer I reread most, a handful of novels, yet I’ve not finished the diaries, essays or letters.
Sinking myself into her novels and letters and diaries was one of the joys of my 20s. One day I would like to finish the essays!
Interesting your view! I have said somewhere that referencing various authors to try and make a point about some idea I have is really futile. Because, even though I am a very slow reader, over my time, the number of books and the number of authors is nearly infinite. From Philosopher’s, two fiction, to science fiction, to essays, two blogs.:. to mention any number of authors would be essentially incomplete for what it is I would be trying to say, and if I was saying anything about a specific author, ultimately it would be informed by the plethora in near Infiniti of otter author is that I have read and their influences going into reading that one author. 😛
So it is interesting to me that you are able to, it seems, isolate particular authors. I would say I probably only have four authors but I respect. But I wouldn’t really be able to name them, because it soon as I would say one, then another one would come up, and it would probably lead to a list much larger than four. Lol.
Such lists are always slippery and also firmly tongue-in-cheek. These are the writers that given no constraints I’d read to completion: minor works, letters, diaries including and probably at least one major critical work. There are many, many other writers I read for a single, or small number of works.
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What intimately related lists we draught. Thank you for this expression
Having read what you think about Piglia, I wonder how come you are not fascinated bu Juan José Saer. Many of his novels have been translated into english, “Glosa” (oddly translated as “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington”), maybe his best (and for many, the greatest argentinean novel of the last fifty years), among them. I would love to read what you think about it.
I don’t know his work, though of course I’ve heard the name. I’d got the impression that his work was too plot-driven (too much story!) for my taste, but that might be a misapprehension. I’ve ordered the one you suggested and will report back. Thanks.