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.

Thoughts on finishing Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books

It may well come as no surprise to anyone except me that the word exhilarating derives from the same roots as hilarity and hilarious. I had thought exhilarating to describe a frothier emotion than to make merry, to cheer or to gladden greatly (definitions provided by Skeat). It is a word that often comes to mind when I reflect on a certain type of reading experience, that brought about, for me, by the writing, for example, of Clarice Lispector and Gerald Murnane, two writers that share little else in common. To gladden greatly, on the other hand, seems no less a correct way to describe how I feel during and after reading the writing of these two transformative writers.

It is this transformative quality that makes me unable to read their books one after another, for besides being exhilarating, having one’s way of perceiving literature and the world changed to a small or significant degree is not an experience to be expended profusely. It is worthy of careful reflection. However many of their books I read, I am unable to see the world in the way that Lispector or Murnane describes their perception. This is part of why I devote so much of my life to reading. How else is it possible to share for a few moments in so different a perspective?

There are writers whose writing has plunged me into reading binges of weeks or months, when I am compelled to read their books, often chronologically, one after another, in some cases on multiple occasions over several years. These are, I suspect, the writers that come closest to sharing, to a lesser or greater degree, something of how I perceive the world. The experience of following their thoughts from sentence to sentence, book to book, is no less exhilarating at the time, but being more comprehensible is perhaps less taxing. These writers, the subject of my periodic reading binges, tend to be those that, many years later, I feel that I have, in some indefinable way, outgrown, or maybe just absorbed.

These other writers, whose books I feel a need to ration, spreading the rewards of  transformed perception over time, are ultimately what I crave, though their fertilising pleasures are in short supply.

Lars Norén, Diaries and Stories

When you love the work of a great writer, chances are high that you’ll be moved by his or her notebooks and journals. How about when a writer is described as “Sweden’s greatest living writer”, which you read on the same day that his death is announced? You then read an article about said writer, watch an interview on YouTube, and arrive at the thought that this writer may very likely join the small pantheon of writers of particular importance to you.

Something tells me though that Lars Norén’s diaries are unlikely candidates for translation into English. The last published recently is a breeze-block of an edition with 1500 unnumbered pages. There are, I think, two previous diaries published in Sweden of similar length. How whimsical a reader I must be to dream about reading four to five thousand pages of a writer’s diary when, to date, I’ve read nothing of his work. I am however assured by a reader of impeccable taste that Norén’s plays are ‘delicious punches to the heart and [his] intellect carried by sharp, sharp language.’

Virginia Woolf’s diaries are rare and perfect blooms, equally—but differently—divine, whether savoured in extracted form, or in all five volumes. As much as I love each of her novels, the minor and the major, it is the diaries, both funny and ravishingly sad, that I would preserve given one of those difficult and thankfully hypothetical choices.

Nor could I part with Ricardo Piglia’s trilogy of diaries that follow his alter ego, Emilio Renzi, a recent discovery that precedes my reading of any of his novels. Kafka’s diaries and notebooks are every part as essential as his stories, and we owe a debt to his friend for not consigning them to flames as Kafka purportedly wished. Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year experiments are beautiful, sad, and taciturn, as are, but with little else in common, Denton Welch’s exuberant Journals. How much richer their oeuvre if we had Beckett’s, Lispector’s or Murnane’s diaries?

With Lars Norén, it was this comment that provided the fiendish spark:

“I hate stories. I can’t even read stories any more. Whenever I see a story is developing, I stop and go back. What fascinates me is the material, and stories get in the way of that. I want to look at this point, like in music, when you can feel the material coming alive so that it brings with it a way of seeing. I’m interested in individual moments, pictures or fragments, which suddenly bring something into view.”

To Norén’s manifest of interests I would add atmosphere, though I suppose his comment is at least partly mischievous and more, as it is for me, a question of form, and an attraction toward forms of narrative that somehow destabilise the reader. My patience for the dominant narrative discourse, changed only a little since the nineteenth century, is mostly exhausted and only to be indulged when exploring works from that specific time. Maria Gabriela Llansol, in her Geography of Rebels trilogy shows just how far a writer can stretch the form, with no narrative structure, no psychology, just figures and glimpses into what she describes as “inner earthquakes”. Although Llansol’s work is singular, her ambition is not new, in fact rather old.

Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

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.

Divine Lizards: A Year of Reading

Ambitious readers must, despite carefully acquired insouciance, weigh up their stacks of dusty unread books with the time available before they return to dust themselves. They have surely roughly calculated a number, assuming an average lifespan and being blessed with continued cognitive faculties. It is quite possible that their groaning shelves are already a display of ambition over cold certainty, even without including in the calculation the additional volumes that will surely be acquired, surreptitiously, or with resigned and solemn endurance. Umberto Eco, with a library split over two homes, owned a total of fifty thousands books, necessary he deemed as a research library: “I don’t go to the bookshelves to choose a book to read. I go to the bookshelves to pick up a book I know I need in that moment.”

With non-fiction, deciding what to read is sometimes a reflection of a passing or enduring interest, perhaps in Kabbalah, or human brain evolution, or the Punic wars, often stimulated by something read in a novel or poem, something not quite understood. “Not understanding”, wrote Enrique Vila-Matas, can be “a door swinging open.”Non-fiction is often of the moment, requiring some fresh context and matures less well than poetry or fiction, unless tracing a line of thought through a particular discipline; an exception being theology or philosophy where the peak may well be behind us. Fiction and poetry are usually improved with a patina of age and time.

Poetry is more personal, arising from just the right admixture of form and subject matter, an integrity dedicated to what George Oppen described as “a determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the colour of our lives.” I chose poets as carefully as I decide what to eat each day, certainly for aesthetic bliss, but also for fascination with the language and thoughts of others. Few intellectual exercises can be more invigorating that to watch the working of another human mind. In some senses, poetry and novels are the only way to see another person from within.

Fiction I choose with equal care, discarding occasionally those novels that, as Jenny Erpenbeck described, fail to “open a door for me into my own reflections.” Peter Schwenger wrote, “When narrative works, when a text is felt, it produces that complex metabolic reaction in us that we call a work’s ‘effect'” It might be that after a time, all is left of a novel in our memory is an atmosphere, or story-line, but as Jenny Erpenbeck wrote, “the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.” We readers are minds inspired by the books we choose.

Often the books that make the deepest impression, slipping deeply into us with barely a sound, are not those expected to become, to borrow a term from Nietzsche, our divine lizards. There were other attempts over the years to read Gerald Murnane, at least three, but this year with Tamarisk Row I crossed the threshold to discover what might be the only living English language writer both advancing the form and doing something beautiful. With Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and even more so with A Million Windows I found, against all expectations, a living writer that could slake my thirst for a sustained glance into a mind so very different to my own. Murnane writes as he does from necessity. His inimitable prose does not suffer the superfluous, stylistic postures that tarnish much of twenty-first century English language fiction. His vision is singular and haunts my thinking to the point that I see the world a little bit differently after reading these books. That is all I ask from fiction (and poetry).

This sense  of writing that touches the bases of life is how I emerged from reading Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak. I persisted past the perception that this was the diary of a solitary man living remotely, something like Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, not a form or theme I dislike when I feel like vicarious escape, but something darker and more raw, closer to V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Unlike Murnane’s writing that compels me to read every word he wrote, I feel no urge to find out more about Cooper or his work, merely content to spend time with his book that captures so well the unsettling nature of an arrival coloured by memory. It might not add anything to literature, but it opened up a space for peace and contemplation.

This was a year when I read a lot more poetry: Auden, Larkin, that kind of thing, but it is Natalie Diaz’s collection in Postcolonial Love Poem that I read and kept on my study desk to reread almost daily. Diaz deals in elaborate symbolic imagery, but the writing is both exuberantly beautiful and concrete, reflecting not only her lived experience, but an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. She took me into alien realms and stimulated in no small way a transformed view of reality. I’m looking forward to reading her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec.

The essays in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections are uneven and, as is the nature with a collected edition, repeat themselves a little, but this is nevertheless an insightful series of essays on her early life in East Germany—a place of rich and near endless fascination—and her experience of writing and reading. Erpenbeck comes across in her novels as a deeply serious writer of poetic and ethical integrity. These essays enrich the reading of her novels to the point I intend to reread them all chronologically after another reading of the pertinent essays.

It is unusual that I read more non-fiction and poetry than novels, but no real surprise in this uncommon year when I read nothing for five weeks, listening only to music for artistic sustenance. Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep is an unconventional work of literary criticism. It addresses Borges’s statement that “literature is nothing more than a guided dream”. My experience of reading the book was sufficiently intense to trigger a hypnagogic vision during that liminal stage between being awake and falling off to sleep. It was also a reminder of the radical mystery of literature and its affects. It brought to mind a sentence of Gerald Murnane’s, “When he paused from following the text, or even when one or another book was far from his reach, even then he had access not only to narrated scenes and events but also to a far more extensive, fictional space, so to call it.”

However wretched this year has been, to finally have in my possession Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, his encyclopaedic collection of images collected to tell a story of how ideas and rituals persist over time, and how we humans fit into a cosmic context, is genuinely thrilling, a memorable event against a bleak backdrop. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science not only provided a brilliant pathway into the Atlas, but gave me space to reflect on the interrelationship between philosophical thought and art history.

Beyond a contemplation of the books I read this year that left the deepest imprint, what is this post that has rambled on far too long? What am I? Am I a blogger again? I’ve no idea. I’ve written more this year than any other, mostly in my notebooks, but felt an need to write into the internet again.If you’ve read this far, please accept my thanks and wishes that the year ahead proves far less interesting than this year.