Monday, December 10, 2007

A Reader Overcoming Despair

At Spurious, Lars ventures a "reading biography", and at This Space, Steve Mitchelmore reiterates the idea that one should not feel guilt or shame about gaps in one's reading life. I look back on my own reading history and on my evolving attitude towards the books I was reading, what I wanted to read, and what I had missed. My reading biography charts a huge expansion, an explosion of interest, followed finally, at last, by a gradual paring down, a winnowing away. . .

I wasn't a reader, and then I was. Somehow, more than a year out of college, without explanation, I got the idea that I would start reading fiction, having never really read it before. What would I read? I tried my father's favorites: I re-read Lord of the Rings (first read at age 12); I read Dune; I read Carrie. But it really started with Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, who means so little to me now; The Brothers Karamazov, which had been a gift from a high school teacher, boxed up and carted throughout college, became my first extracurricular reading of capital-L Literature. I was duly pleased with myself. Then came, at a friend's insistence, Camus' The Stranger and Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Camus didn't leave much of an impression; it was Nabokov who first gave me some sense of what I might want: language. Beginning with Nabokov, I became intoxicated by language. I wasn’t a great, close reader, by any means. I had no sense of structure, and I didn't think about why an author might have chosen this or that approach. I wasn't even a reader of poetry. But as long as a novel's language had something to recommend it--some beauty or some excitement or even some difficulty--I was interested.

A scattershot survey of the 20th century followed: Steinbeck, Kafka, Vonnegut, Faulkner. I dipped into Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Don Delillo. Before long, I was caught up in current writers--I consumed the exuberant fiction of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Irvine Welsh. Fell in love with Richard Powers. I liked to read quickly, riding the waves of the language, catch the music of the prose, that thrilling thrum, trying to not be too concerned by what I didn't understand. Soon, I began to feel twinges of anxiety about my reading. I'd become interested in the so-called post-modernists--Barth, Coover, Gass, Hawkes--and I began to feel acutely all that I'd missed at the same time I was feeling an insane need to somehow read everything. Consumed with ambition, yet crushed by doubt, I felt sure that one couldn't really get what the post-modernists were up to if one had not read the Modernists (surely they were "post" for a reason, right?). In turn, the Modernists--how little I understood the term!--I thought, would be largely inexplicable if one hadn't read the 19th century novelists, or more importantly, the classics. And yet the 19th century novels seemed accessible, if dusty. The only anxiety I felt towards them was related to the sheer number of them.

The internet only made things worse. My first foray online was Michael Dirda's bookchats for The Washington Post (the only "critics" I had any knowledge of were those who wrote regularly for the Post, then my local newspaper). One thing he repeatedly stressed was the importance of what he called the "patterning texts". The Greeks and Romans, the Bible, and so on. These are the texts that a basic literary education should largely consist of, he argued. I instantly concluded that he was correct, and that this meant that I was, in fact, doomed--how would I ever find the time to read all the classics, while also following through on Modernism, on post-Modernism, and keeping abreast of current fiction (for some reason this seemed really important to me)? Plainly, I could not. Worse, I felt then that the time had long since passed when I'd be able to internalize these crucial patterning texts, so that I could usefully notice and understand a linguistic or structural allusion. Or be able to truly understand and assess a given work's achievement. I worried about the sequence in which I should read books, to allow for maximum pleasure and understanding. To a huge extent, I wanted, yearned, helplessly, to have already read the classics. I wanted somehow to be able to simply plug into my brain, Matrix-style, Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Ovid, Virgil, Dante. . . I didn't doubt that there were still people who read the classics for actual pleasure; it simply did not occur to me that I could be one of those people. I didn't feel guilt or shame about this. I felt fucked.

It was through Dirda's chats that I first heard of such "experimental" authors as Harry Mathews and Gilbert Sorrentino, and by extension the Dalkey Archive. Another expansion of interest, this time towards the lesser known, the underground or experimental, the forgotten. Then I happened across The Complete Review and, before long, blogs. I had been dissatisfied with what I found in newspaper review sections (I lacked trust in them); the bloggers shared this dissatisfaction. I learned about more and more books. The most common perspective in the early blogs I was reading was that greatness can be found anywhere--any genre, any kind of writer, any kind of story or novel, any subject matter. This was also my perspective. While I had a definite prejudice in favor of the lesser known, I have to admit that I was just as interested in the big mainstream literary books--I took it for granted that the National Book Award and Booker nominees were worth reading, even if they might not be quite the best books of the year. And with the kinds of coverage blogs were providing of numerous small presses, of books from all genres, of countless writers writing in countless styles? An explosion in the amount of fiction that I felt I had to (had to) keep abreast of. I was fucked.

In a post about the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates, Steve mentions the "despair one feels in a library, or when faced by the list of classics one has failed to read". I felt that despair constantly. I wanted to read everything, but I was bogged down in the present day. But why did I feel I had to read all of this? How did I think I could possibly do it? How was I ever going to find time for the classical works if I thought I had to read every hot new book that created industry or litblog buzz? Or every unfairly lost writer of the recent past? When would I ever find the time for Ulysses? Or for Proust? More to the point, what did I really want from my reading? What sorts of books meant the most to me? Did I even know? Had I given the matter any real thought? Did I really care about all of these new books? How was I going to find my way out of this situation? How would I cut my way through the chaos?

And then an answer presented itself. Suddenly, it seems, Modernism has become vitally important to me. I've referred to Modernism a couple of times already in this post, but what is it? For years, knowing nothing, I looked on Modernism as a loose movement of writers who rebelled against what was then establishment literature, finding new ways to write, new methods for telling stories. My conception of this movement was that it occurred during a specific, finite period in time (somewhere in the early 20th century). My conception of these writers was that they were difficult. I'd read some of these authors (Kafka, for example), but in general the literary Modernists struck me as especially forbidding. Though difficulty by itself hasn't usually stopped me. Another of Michael Dirda's common themes in his chats was that if you are interested in reading something, you should just read it. You're never going to "get" everything, he’d say, so you may as well just go for it. Yes, obviously. My anxiety notwithstanding, this was usually what I did. I dove right into Gaddis, gobbled up those big Barth books, chewed my way through Gass. And yet, I still tended to hold the Modernists at arm's length. My perception of their difficulty was that it was something apart from whatever difficult works I'd already attempted.

But something has changed. What has happened, really just within the life of this blog, is that Modernism has come into focus for me as an idea, an idea that might help guide my way (and not just as a reader). Steve quotes from a review by Gabriel Josipovici of a new survey history of Modernism by Peter Gay. Josipovici writes that, contrary to Gay's conception, Modernism is "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence". That crucial moment, it now seems clear to me, is ongoing and as necessary as ever. In my engagement with Josipovici's criticism this year, I've discovered a perspective that speaks to me. He's used words like "trust" and "tradition" in ways that make sense to me and enable me to appreciate, in some small way, the Modernist project. This idea that these writers were each concerned, on their own, with finding an authentic way to write--amid an acute understanding that the accepted methods lacked validity--this idea resonates with me and makes sense in the context of the ongoing project of living my own life, and at the same time renders these writers more approachable.

In light of this resonance, to finish up by returning to the theme of my reading, my interests have narrowed considerably. I only have so much time for reading, and now I know, with a clarity that I utterly lacked in the past, how I intend to use that time: I intend to spend it with the Modernists (2008 will be year of Proust, beginning with a re-read of Swann's Way; it will be the year of Beckett's prose Trilogy); with the Greeks and Romans; with Dante. New books and new writers will be filtered through this prism. This is still a big reading project, but it seems to me much more coherent and manageable. More than ever, I'm excited to get on with it.


Rebecca H. said...

Interesting post. I don't feel that I've settled on one time or frame or overarching idea in my reading, in spite of the fact that I spend so much time in the 18C, and that causes me some anxiety reading over your history, but ... perhaps that narrowing down process isn't for me. I do think it sounds fruitful, though, and exciting.

Toast said...

That's good, Richard. Once you've mentioned every white male author of literature in your postings, maybe you can tell us something important about the work of other genders and ethncities.

Also, could you please give us a more detailed explanation of what Josipovici means by "a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence"? I don't really understand what it means. That would be swell.

Richard said...

Nice of you to bring your particular brand of love to my blog, "toast". I'm thrilled.

And here I was feeling somewhat abashed on my own at not mentioning any women writers or writers of color, or at managing to leave out of my account the ways in which my awareness at the paucity of such writers increased my anxiety and despair, and how I tried to address it.... Not that you care, since you clearly don't.

What do you get out of making such a comment? What's in it for you? What would it take to make you happy? Would it please you if I pointed you to posts in which I talked about non-white non-male writers? Would a list of writers suffice? Which ethnicities would satisfy you?

Don't bother answering any of these questions, because I couldn't possibly care what your answers might be.

brandon said...

Yeah Richard! Screw you for being super-honest about your PERSONALIZED reading history...I really enjoyed this post.

Recently, I've gotten an extra job which has cut down my reading-time significantly making me all the more selective about reading. It is interesting to see where one's reading habits fall when pressed for time.

I find it really interesting that you didn't become a READER until after college.

J.S. Peyton said...

I envy you your ability to organize and "narrow" your reading that way. I often feel anxiety over the ever growing list of books I'd like to read. Even forcing myself to acknowledge that it's unlikely that I'll get to all of them in my lifetime doesn't help. But I figure I'm still relatively young (mid-20s), and hopefully, I still have a bit of time to formulate my own reading pattern. Until then, I'll guess I'll be running around the reading board like a chicken with its head cut off.

Richard said...

brandon, j.s., and Dorothy, thanks for the comments.

Brandon - I know what you mean about having to be selective because of work.... my dwindling time has really affected my music intake, but also my reading. And my commute to DC would seem to be good for giving me time for reading, but as often as not I'm too sleepy to do anything but zone out listening to my iPod. As for beginning after college.... it's weird. I took one AmLit course in college, and enjoyed it, but nothing stayed with me or led me anywhere. I was obsessed with sports in high school: I read countless baseball biographies, and was always poring over stuff like The Baseball Abstract. Plus, as a huge Zep fan, I read Hammer of the Gods at least twice, and things like that. It's a mystery.

Dorothy - I think it's funny (in a good way!) that you "spend so much time" reading 18th c. works. I've read Tristram Shandy, but that's about it!

Rebecca H. said...

Well, you picked a good one, that's for sure! Tristram Shandy is one of my favorite novels ever.

Richard said...

Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Did you see the recent movie?? Very funny!

Anonymous said...

Dear Richard,

Please ignore the poster called Toast. We get a lot of mean-spirited people like that in the Academy: all too ready to initiate a witch-hunt, all too ready to insist on the expression of ideas in terms that won't make a rigid Engineer-type nervous. "Show your work."

I had a look at his or her own blog and it appeared to be the distressing product of someone whose mind is under a terrible amount of pressure to produce intelligent things. "Toast, indeed." Nice fucking blog template, too. It gave me a migraine.

Enjoy 2008. Beckett's Trilogy is my own personal talisman against smart-arses, burn-outs, and those who've bought into the Great Reading Contest.

Rebecca H. said...

Yes! I did see the movie. It was very true to the spirit of the book I thought.

Bobby said...


I feel compelled to throw in my own "Huzzah!" of encouragement and appreciation after reading the comment from toast. I suppose such tiresome trolls like this from "The School of Resentment", as Harold Bloom put it, are inevitable in a blog such as yours. Keep up the *excellent* work - it's very uplifting to me to follow your earnest, thoughtful explorations - be it in literature, Marxism, music or film. I love it! :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Richard, and I fully understand the sentiment. There can be a feeling of great pressure and anxiety when contemplating the vastness of literature, and I'm reminded of something Zadie Smith once wrote about a woman she knew who was trying to get through all of the writers who received Nobel prizes (or Pulitzers, one of the two). And when Smith asked this woman how it was going, the woman replied that it was one the most awful experiences she'd ever had. :) I think in part because of that kind of pressure.

You really hit the nail on the head when you filtered the whole issue down to this: "what did I really want from my reading? What sorts of books meant the most to me?" I suspect that, ultimately, this is what matters most in a reading life -- the personal fulfillment, aside from the need to get through all the great books, all the foundations of a culture. Time's limited, so we make choices. I think you're making the right one for you, at this moment in your life.

Richard said...

Anonymous, Bobby, & Michael - thank you all for the comments and the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I feel like I'm going through this reader anxiety right now and what to read and not read. The only solution it seems is a strict reading schedule, even though for me this is supposed to be a pleasurable hobby. The price one pays for not really being an English major in college, I guess. In any case I feel sort of jealous of bloggers like you and Waggish.