A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Farewell

It evidently isn’t blogging that is dead, but what used to be called the blogosphere died some time ago. How I used to loathe that term, but it now represents a wistful glance in the rear-view mirror. At its peak, it represented an inter-connected series of blogs of shifting, but broadly mutual interests. Each blog nourished each other through commenting on each other posts, a carefully curated blog-roll, shared arguments and occasional memes.

There is little point in nostalgia. Facebook and then Twitter emerged as easier sites to share opinion and recommendations. There is, at least since Teju Cole, little artistic expression on Twitter. Writing on those platforms doesn’t, unlike blogging, feel like a creative project. I kept a Twitter presence to follow the journeys of a few readers who over some years shaped my own reading experience, but it is so easy to get dejected by the rolling news, the banter and the trivial. My @timesflow account became primarily a way of driving readers to individual blog posts.

The nuanced conversation and complex interconnected social relations that characterised the blogosphere seem to have transferred in part to podcasts, at least in terms of the literary conversation I once found between bloggers. To be honest, I didn’t envisage back in 2009 what a marvellous world this blog would open up for me, both in terms of meeting literary-minded people in person, or just exchanging emails and messages. Social media remains a viable way to “meet” like-minded people, so I’m sure I’ll maintain a presence in some shape and form.

This is all a rambling way to explain that I have decided to end Time’s Flow Stemmed. On this site I found a voice, maybe became a better writer, definitely became a better reader. I’ve no regrets or sadness. Through blogging, I’ve met many wonderful people all over the world and hope to continue the conversation in the future. I still have a great yearning for conversation about literature and what makes a human, though I’m not sure yet what form that may take.

Thanks to everyone that followed part or all of my reading life, especially those that subscribed, and those that joined the conversation. If I start anything new I’ll post an update on this site.

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.

 

Dead Letters

Correctly, it seems, if belatedly, book blogging is pronounced dead. That the ‘golden age’ of book blogging is passed seems hardly worth debating. The conversation in diminished form is taking place elsewhere or perhaps nowhere. Whatever your passion or interest, blogging itself died as the marketing departments moved in offering swag and the illusion of influence.

Social media, occasionally blamed for distracting fickle blog readers, simply threw some dirt on a coffin that was already being lowered into the ground. For a moment, it seemed to offer an alternative, but was always destined a place for commerce, less agora and more commercial break without the intervening substance. There is still a possibility of connection, of finding a handful of people that get excited by the same set of things, but the anonymity of social media leaves you open to distraction from the type of opinionated men you’d cross the room to avoid at parties. I think a lot about Seth Godin’s comment in his On Being interview, “We are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk? All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I’m not buying it.”

All sorts of ‘dead’ languages are studied today, some less ‘dead’ than others. Literature may be dead, literary criticism is dying, serious novels are in steep decline, yet we continue to read. There is still the frisson of my RSS reader signalling a new post at This Space or flowerville. The book blog died a long time ago, but keep reading the ones you love as zombies in any part of human culture remain as effective as ever at reducing their subject to the bare, intricately nuanced essentials.

Thinking, Blogging, Tweeting

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.