My Reading Years

My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.

During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.

Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.

Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.

The Book of Disquiet

I have been intrigued for a while with Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet. The title has drawn me in each time I have seen it on the shelf at the London Review Bookshop. Today I began reading it whilst commuting but have concluded that it is not a book to be read in hour long chunks.

The themes change frequently and, it seems to me, that is is a book to be read every now and again, almost at random. It appears a wonderful, challenging book that merits a slow, discursive approach. I shall use it as my bedside book capturing my final twenty minutes before sleep. It has a dreamlike quality that seems appropriate.There are scents, so far, of Kierkegaard, particularly Either/Or and the beginnings of the theme of existential angst that Sartre was to develop.

Juxtaposition

Manguel on Borges:

It isn’t impossible that in some way, in order to be with a woman, any woman of the many he desired, to be privy to her mystery, to be more than just a wordsmith, to be or to try to be a lover and be loved for his own sake and not for that of his inventions, Borges created the Aleph, again and again, throughout his work.

But I’d go further. I suspect that Dante constructed literature’s best book in order to insert a few meetings with the unrecapturable Beatrice …

Intempestivus

Whenever you read a book and come across any wonderful phrases which you feel stir or delight your soul, don’t merely trust the power of your own intelligence, but force yourself to learn them by heart and make them familiar by meditating on them, so whenever an urgent case of affliction arises, you’ll have the remedy ready as if it were written in your mind.

– Petrarch (imagining a conversation with Augustine) from Alberto Manguel’s History of Reading.

Time’s Flow Stemmed: An Introduction

On the one hand, the literary object has no substance but the reader’s subjectivity … But on the other hand, the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings and to reflect them towards us … the work exists only at the exact level of his [the reader] capacities; while he reads and creates, he knows that he can always further in his reading, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible … Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work.

(Sartre 1967)

Reading literature is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer exerts a degree of control over the reader’s interpretation. Is this control more or less significant than the part a reader plays in determining the meaning of a narrative? In part this will depend on the skill of the writer’s intention and narrative style. The writer guides but whether the reader grasps the significance of what he reads will depend on experience, imagination, knowledge and ability. Returning to a text after the passing of a decade inevitably presents fresh ways of exploring concepts and ideas.

My reading is impelled by serendipity and a desire to inhabit, however briefly, other selves. It is in part to create meaning, but also a way to observe life through another filter. Great literature provokes an aesthetic and emotional reaction. What to make of a particular author’s imagery and symbolism? What was the writer’s intention? How to read more closely and create understanding more profoundly?

It is my hope to participate in a conversation about literature, narrative style and meaning, about how to read more profoundly and to discover fresh sources of inspiration.