Archive Page 2

04
Mar
09

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

Today, a poem! This is part of a series on “poetry of reading”, a feature I intend to use as a regular update here on this blog. Your poetry suggestions are, of course, most welcome!

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.

Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

(by Margaret Atwood, 1939-)

Published in 1968, “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” portrays a reader haunted by the atrocities reported in the news. Literate, the reader not only cannot escape the news, but likely experiences a responsibility to read them, to inform herself, and even attempts to reach her own readers so that she may make the world a better place. Yet all her attempts are futile. She cannot shake of the sense of responsibility and guilt, and although we may find it difficult to relate to her uncompromising verdict, “I am the cause”, we can certainly understand that the mere act of reading the news — of just sitting there, “quietly as a fuse”, witnessing the horrors of the world from our living rooms — has a touch of the absurd, the more so in this day an age when news has become an entertainment commodity and each war comes with its own jingle.

03
Mar
09

Flaubert and his Parrot On Reading

Traditionally, reader response theory focuses on abstract or generic readers and tends to brush over some of the more human elements of reading. This includes the reader’s relationship to the author, and so it is quite refreshing to read an account of just such a relationship: Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot recounts the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an avid reader and amateur-scholar of Gustave Flaubert, who is visiting the writer’s home in France to search for clues about the significance of a parrot Flaubert once used to write one of his stories.

Barnes’s Parrot has  a lot to say on authors and readers, and on critics, too. Neither Flaubert nor Braithwaite make bones about what they think of the latter’s breed. In a chapter on Emma Bovary’s eyes, for example, the amateur-reader Braithwaite takes a professional Flaubert critic to task for chiding the Frenchman for sloppiness, and offers a poignant simile of the reader-author relationship for the professional reader, on the one hand, and the common readers on the other:

I must confess that in all the time I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can’t for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain lal the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell yo one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. … Whereas the common but passionate reader  is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers,  come back and be entranced again. (75-76)

Very apt, methinks, although we should not forget that common readers can get quite obsessed and obsessive about their choice authors as well.

Gustave Flaubert

The Parrot also contains snippets from Flaubert’s letters and Madame Bovary that often broach the topic of reading, and make me want to read Flaubert, albeit not so much for the master’s portrayal of the human condition as for what doctor Braithwaite dubs Flaubert’s “confident scraps of wisdom, hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry”. To wit:

Les livres ne se font pas comme les enfants, mais comme les pyramides, avec un dessein prémédité, et en apportant des grands blocs l’un par-dessus l’autre, à force de reins, de temps et de sueur, et ça ne sert à rien ! Et ça reste dans le désert ! Mais en le dominant prodigieusement. Les chacals pissent en bas et les bourgeois montent dessus, etc., continue la comparaison. (Gustave Flaubert, cited in Albert Thibaudet’s Gustave Flaubert, 136)

Or in translation from the Parrot:

Books aren’t made the way babies are: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.

Magnifique!

17
Feb
09

Danse Joyeuse, Danse Macabre

… le bonheur et l’innocence de la lecture, qui est peut-être en effet une danse avec un partenaire invisible dans un espace séparé, une danse joyeuse, éperdue, avec le «tombeau». Légèreté à qui il ne faut pas souhaiter le mouvement d’un souci plus grave, car là où la légèreté nous est donnée, la gravité ne manque pas … — Maurice Blanchot, L’espace litteraire

Via This Space, I came across the above quote by Maurice Blanchot, whose life, according to his publisher Gallimard, “was devoted entirely to literature and its peculiar silence”. Blanchot describes reading as a “joyful, frenzied dance with the grave”, a “lightness” that needs no greater sorrow, for where there’s lightness, “there’s gravity”.

The Scholar

I cannot quite decipher Blanchot’s paradoxical notions about the act of reading, and death never figures prominently in my reading experiences (not my own death, anyway, or at the very least not a conscious fear of death). Yet in accounts from other, more seasoned readers, the idea that the reader wrestles with death through the very act of reading crops up again and again. Unfortunately, I haven’t been taking notes along the way, being too young and too lucky to have been bothered by the spectre death. I do, however, know that once I pass away, I would very much like to have the epitaph of the young Benjamin Franklin written on my tombstone:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

(The woodcut is from Totentanz, by Hans Holbein the Younger.)

10
Feb
09

William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.

31
Jan
09

Reading at Work

Perhaps the best thing since sliced bread: Read at work! by the New Zealand Book Council.

Edgar Allan Poe's "A Dream"

31
Jan
09

Montaigne, The Commerce of Reading

Le malade n’est pas à plaindre qui a la guarison en sa manche. — Montaigne, Les Essais, “De Trois Commerces”

“The sick man is not to be pitied who has his cure in his sleeve.” Or his books on his bookshelves, for that matter. Thus muses Michel de Montaigne in his essay on the commerce of reading. I must admit that up to now, I have not been too impressed by Montaigne the writer; the occasional aphorism notwithstanding, his writing and thinking sometimes seems higgledy-piggledy to me, and sometimes outright banal. What he has to say about the company of books, however, was well worthwhile:

In the experience and practice of this sentence [i.e. the above quotation], which is a very true one, all the benefit I reap from books consists; and yet I make as little use of it almost as those who know it not; I enjoy it as a miser does his money, in knowing that I may enjoy it when I please; my mind is satisfied with this right of possession. I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet I sometimes pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking at them; I will read by and by, say I to myself, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert myself with them when I am so disposed, and call to mind what an ease and assistance they are to my life. ‘Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and I very much pity those men of understanding who are unprovided with it. I rather accept of any sort of diversion, how light soever, in the feeling that this can never fail me.

Michel de Montaigne

We might dismiss this attitude as that of the book-fool, but I tend to agree with Montaigne that the sheer possession of books is comforting, soothing almost. Books are a reassuring presence; they invite you to converse with them, but they do not force you to; they promise an ailment to boredom, a promise to provide entertainment, knowledge, all that good stuff, and even a pearl of wisdom every now and then.

Reading “comforts me in my age and solitude,” writes Montaigne, “it eases of a troublesome weight of idleness, and it delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike.” Montaigne is not an obsessive-compulsive reader, but a common reader, ardent no doubt, and engaging and clever, but also leisurely, a reader who is well aware of reading’s place in his life, as well as its limitations and dangers:

Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose them; but every good has its ill; ’tis a pleasure that is not pure and unmixed an more than others; it has its inconveniences, and great ones too; the mind, indeed, is exercised by it, but the body, the care of which I have not forgotten, remains in the meantime without action, grows heavy and melancholy. I know no excess more prejudicial to me, nor more to be avoided in my declining age.

Lines such as these lead me to think that the comfort of books lies not only in their presence, but also in the knowledge that their authors can speak to us through the ages, and that — regardless of the fact that one of us read from a printed page sitting on a wooden chair, the other from a computer screen sitting on a couch — we have something in common.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar. Montaigne’s essays are available in English at Gutenberg, and here’s the original passage in French.

27
Jan
09

Reading in Bed

Reading in Bed is an anthology of essays by Steven Gilbar. I picked up a copy today at Housing Works on my first day as a volunteer; Gilbar’s collection features writers  such as Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Hesse, Nabokov, among many others, musing on the subject of reading. The cover illustration is a beautiful painting by Bascove titled “Reading in Bed”, courtesy of the Uptown Gallery:

Reading in Bed by Bascove

This composition is nigh-perfect in capturing my ultimate delights: reading, beauty, books on bookshelves, a luscious peach, an elegant green library lamp, a comfy bed, and a cat. Have you ever wondered why readers and cats go so well together? Perhaps because both are rather solitary creatures. More on Reading in Bed as I make my way through the essays one by one (preferably in the manner pictured above).