Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reading badly

That is the illusion of all writers, the belief that people open our books and read them from start to finish, holding their breath and barely pausing.  (from p. 366 of Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, Javier Marías, 2002, tr. Margaret Julia Costa)

In context, this quotation is a bit of a joke.   The narrator of this Javier Marías novel is the one who barely pauses, who spills out words breathlessly, literally, I guess, since he is writing, but the speakers in the novel seem to have the same problem with digressions, qualifiers, and finding a place to end their flow of words.  I have trouble imagining the reader who reads this exhausting novel without pause, without many good long restorative pauses.

And then I have to consider that this novel is the first of a trilogy, the latter volumes of which may be much like this one in their discursiveness and sly concealments.   Many people are in fact reading it right now, as I type, possibly this very instant, as part of a Caravana de Recuerdos readalong opportunity.  The plan of many, and of me, too, is to read all three novels this summer, one each month, although they were published years apart from each other, in 2002, 2004 and 2007.  Perhaps a wiser reader would allow a little more space between the books.  Perhaps a more deliberate pace would allow me to be a better reader of Marías.

I say this not because I believe I read the Marías novel badly, although it is a tricky devil, but because I had actually planned to spend this week, or most of it, writing about a really substantial and brilliant book, Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867).  Unlike, oh, I don’t know, Life in the Far West by George Frederick Ruxton, Ibsen’s long verse play is enormously complex and obviously worth attentive re-reading.  I am reading Ibsen’s book with great pleasure, but I am also reading it badly.

Confused, fragmented, distracted, jittery – that’s how I am reading it.  When I began Peer Gynt, it was so immediately rich and juicy that I had assumed that a series of posts would suggest themselves.  And they have, oh they have – a series of banal posts, any number of tedious and bad ideas.  I am not merely reading badly but thinking badly, although I suspect the one is the same as the other.

I am taking too long to finish Peer Gynt, I know that – it deserves a bit of breath-holding.  But then I look at The Frigate Pallada by Ivan Goncharov (1858), the author of Oblomov.  I have been reading this travel book about a Russian diplomatic expedition to Japan for three months, and am not half done.  It’s a wonderful book, but it feels entirely natural to slip into it now and again, to follow Goncharov’s account of a day or a week  and set it aside.  The events of the book covers a couple of years, so I will read about them faster than Goncharov lived them.  I feel that I am reading The Frigate Pallada fairly well; I am sure I am reading Peer Gynt badly.

Not that I have identified any sort of guideline – books in Category Alpha should be read with Technique Aleph.  Nonsense.  Books are full of surprises.  Peer Gynt surprises me on every page.  With luck a second reading will suggest an order to my thoughts, or perhaps another book, or another Ibsen play, will teach me to read it and think about it.

The danger of worrying about this issue at all is that it could very well mean the end of book blogs.  If I began to think too hard about what I have written here, for example -  where’s that Publish button?   Where’s that dang – oh, there it is.


  1. I'm starting the Marias book this weekend. I wanted to finish up a few other titles first. I figure Your Face Tomorrow will require my full concentration.

  2. Sadly, I know exactly what you mean. I finished The Sot-Weed Factor last night and I did not (and will not, when I come to blog about it) do it justice because I was only partly present for it. I wanted, more than anything, just to be reading Vanity Fair (and everything after). I was mentally punishing it for not having been written in the 19th century! Does Barth lose here? Clearly not.

  3. I get paralyzed at times by that feeling of reading badly. But I suppose we can't all be the ideal reader of all books at all times. So I try to be content with a mediocre first or second reading in the hopes, as you say, that a new light will be cast and my next reading will be a more competent one.

  4. As someone feverishly trying to prepare for and spear (or at least thinking about all that...) several readalong commitments at the moment, I'm not sure I appeciate Marías' joke just now. His novel yes, although I'm only at the halfway point in vol. 1 in my leisurely approach to it. You've hit on a couple of examples why this blogging thing is bad for reading, though, among them the pressing need to "share" on a timetable that isn't really natural in terms of the reading experience itself. Of course, I guess you could look at that as motivation as well. Where IS that Publish button anyway?

  5. It all proves my point. Writing this post did me some good, since I just read the long, stunning, insane last act of Peer Gynt holding my breath and barely pausing. My thinking still ain't so hot, but it's progress.

    The Marías novel rewarded a pretty steady 30-40 pages a day. His chapter breaks were helpful. Thomas Bernhard didn't give his readers so many chapter breaks, usually none. I finished YFT1 a bit early, by the way, because of an upcoming vacation. Concentration, C.B., is just the word.

    Emily - that's it. Just power through. Always a next time, unless there's not, and either way, forward march.

    An advantage of my method, such as it is, Colleen, is that I feel no obligation to write about books I have read badly, or for that matter have read well. The writing is writing, with its own purpose, logic, timetable, and life, separate from reading.

    You know, I could write about that more, the odd, jumbled relationship between the writing schedule and the actual reading of the actual books, but it's all so idiosyncratic that I doubt it is at all interesting, while the problem of reading badly is universal, although pretty darn rare with this group of commenters.

  6. As someone who reads 20-30 books at a time, I'm pretty practised I think at reading badly. I find it usually depends on the book and writer.

    For instance, I picked up a Harry Mulisch book yesterday, which I'd read 100 pages of but nothing in the last month, and I hadn't a clue who any of the character were, what their relations were to one another and only a vague recollection what the book was about at all.

    Whereas the Zola novel I'm reading, I know I can keep putting down and picking up, and each time I'll be entering comfortably back into that same old familiar world.

  7. 20-30? Nuts, nuts. 6-8 is ideal. Obviously. That's what I do.

    It depends on the book, writer, and our experience with whatever it is they're doing. Peer Gynt is not completely novel to me - it's a heck of a lot like Goethe's Faust - but I'm not used to thinking about work of its kind.

    Throw a 19th century novel at me, though - please! I scoff at it! Or at least know a number of ways to approach it and write about it.

  8. More on the writing process at some point please, Amateur Reader (that is, if you take requests, unlike some difficult musicians I know). "Idiosyncratic" isn't exactly a turnoff to all of your readers, you know!

  9. Sure, sure, a series of Amateur Writing Tricks. Not a bad idea.

  10. Loved the first quote, because it came as a surprise to me that the readers on my site do not read the episodes in order! I guess it's working for them, even though it's not my first choice of what I wish they'd do.