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.
It is of great importance to my life that I spend time in contemplative thought. Usually this takes place through paying attention to what I’m reading and capturing perceptions in my notebooks, occasionally here on my personal blog and, less often these days, on social media. Paying attention in this way increases my capacity to retain information and appears to give me greater ability to recall knowledge to my thoughts when there is occasion to apply it in some way, either in writing or in conversation. This blog is coming up to its tenth anniversary. Blogging about my reading life changed the way I read, what I read, what I retain from the books I read, and through blogging I’ve made some deep and enduring friendships.
As social media usage, Twitter in particular, became more prevalent, comments in reply to blog posts became less common. In its early days Twitter was a good way to converse with friends, often in the privacy of one-to-one conversations (direct messages), but every now and again there was a sharp reminder that it is a highly public space. It was nevertheless still a good place to make friends that wouldn’t have been made elsewhere. It is also a form of commonplace book where I save and share short form quotations from the books I’m reading.
These days I spend much less time on Twitter. I’ve tried to make it less frustrating by disabling everyone’s retweets and following fewer people, but it is still harder, especially with the loathsome ‘quoted with comment tweets’, to filter out the mock outrage or the fatuous ‘tweet storms’ that accompany a celebrity death, the latest Trump sound bite, or the bandwagon that builds around well-marketed books. It is also impossible to filter out the sometimes stupid, but often not, just merely pointless snarky replies to tweets from people who must make their Opinion known. If using a public Twitter account, this is the price you pay for being in that vast public arena. I de-activate from time to time but I am pathetically irresolute and end up coming back after a week or two, missing some of the book talk from my Twitter feed. I keep hoping for a Twitter alternative but none seem to gain much traction.
I thought briefly about the symbolism of closing this blog on 25th January 2019, ten years after its birth, but it still plays a critical part in my life of contemplation. It is also still instrumental in its way in building friendships with people around the world that share a broadly similar taste in books. It is unquestionably harder to cope with the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter, but for now I persist there while trying to ignore outraged Twitter. For the first time in several years I have a Facebook presence, primarily to keep loosely in contact with family and friends.
“After we’ve seen so many copies of something over the years, the original stops us in our tracks. It takes our breath away. We’re not all experts who can stand before an original and understand it. Therefore, without copies in existence we wouldn’t understand originals. When we fall in love, we see everything as an original. We’re the ones pulling the wool over our own eyes. We inflate the value so much, and add so many zeros to it, that we can’t afford it ourselves. And when we can’t pay the price, we start eliminating, one by one the zeros on the price-tag. We discount the price. Then we arrive at the truth. The point here, which I truly believe, is that access to the original is out of reach for many of us. Therefore, we should value and appreciate a copy. That’s what’s important.”
– Abbas Kiarostami