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.

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.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

Thoughts on Cusk and Autofiction

There’s some insightful writing around about Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, including the transcript of an interview with Alexandra Schwartz. On my first reading of the last in the series, Kudos, I drifted off about a third of the way through, but I am glad I returned, this time reading the trilogy end to end over a couple of days. I’ve thought whether to write anything much about my reading of Cusk, but have little that would improve on the pieces linked above.

I’d like to read more Cusk, but cannot imagine she can continue to explore the reticent narrator in the same way. There is a controlling quality that becomes a little claustrophobic, that sense of a person seeing without being seen. What I enjoyed most was the clear tension between Cusk’s need to use some minimal tools of fiction to narrate her story, but preserve the subtlety about the implications of her narrative, at least until the last pages of Kudos.

What also interests me is the phenomenon that has come to be called autofiction. It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

Autofiction changes the role of the reader, requiring a greater imaginative contribution. It is both discomfiting and liberating. I’ve returned to Knausgaard’s writing for that reason, enjoying both Summer and Autumn, and fully intend to read his six part series over the winter. I read Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living and am hungry for more. In fact, I’m finder it harder and harder to return to the false notes of character and stylised tensions of plot that are the remnants of the nineteenth century novel. It’s just a phase I’m sure.

Marguerite Duras’ The Man Sitting in the Corridor


Marguerite Duras writes short, boundless stories. As in many of her stories, in The Man Sitting in the Corridor she starts tentatively, turning frequently to the future perfect to situate the past of her story in the future. Though disturbing and sexually provocative, there is nothing pornographic in the scenes, robbed of texture and tension by the pace and hollowness of the characters.

Much of the narrative tension in The Man Sitting in the Corridor is created by the third person, the voyeur quietly observing the sadomasochistic events from an unseen distance. The fourth person, another voyeur, is the reader left unsettled by the awful force of the story. This is late Duras at her most terse, destabilising the cold-bloodedness of pornography by stripping it bare of any erotic charge.

This edition of The Man Sitting in the Corridor is published by Foxrock Books, named after Beckett’s birthplace and founded by Barney Rosset, founder also of Grove Press which brought Beckett to Americans’ attention.