Tuesday, January 24, 2012

i read therefore i am

23/1.2012 - a little bedside reading

spud was wittering on facebook the other day about reading. she'd been listening to a radio program where various writers talked about what reading meant to them. i wanted to immediately go and listen to the program, but i stopped myself, because i wanted to think about the question myself, without the filter of someone else's answer.

reading. i do it daily. and i don't mean all of the reading i do on a computer screen - i mean reading with an actual book in hand. i cannot fall asleep without reading at least a little bit before turning out the light. sometimes i fall asleep with a book in my hand and wake up in the middle of the night with it fallen on my chest and turn off the light. i come by this honestly, as my father does this too. i think when he wakes up to find the light on, he just reads a little bit more, where i tend to turn off the light and put down the book.

and although i can see the convenience of reading on an iPad or other device (what? there are other devices?), i still prefer the heft and solidity of an actual book in my hand. and tho' i largely read newspapers online, i do also love the sound of a turned page and the smell of a real newspaper, especially on sunday. it's strange, i have a sort of separation in my head as to what it's ok to read electronically and what has to be read as an actual book - sherlock holmes, that was just fine on the iPad, but murakami? i want to hold the actual book in my hand.

as i've admitted previously, i am unafraid to write in books. including library books, tho' i've been trying to restrain of late. it was one thing to have a dialogue in the marginalia of the books in the reg at the U of C, it's quite another to leave my musings in a book belonging to the royal library in copenhagen.

i think it's difficult to say exactly what reading gives to me - especially the reading of novels.  i suppose it's largely a way of processing the world. of coming to terms with human motivations and feelings and reactions. a means of being transported to another place and time, to witness events. to come to a deeper understanding through metaphor (think life of pi, which is one long metaphor about humans pushed to their outer limits - tho' i hate the ending of that book).  when i read jonathan franzen, i feel he has looked deep into my midwestern roots and wrung the very meaning from them, helping me to arrive at a better understanding of myself.

from the mind of a seemingly rational madman like raskolnikov to the mess of madame bovary to the prototype of brave, independent, smart girls i found in both the laura ingalls wilder books and trixie belden mysteries i read as a kid...i found the models that have shaped my understanding of the world.  i would go so far as to say that my models of the world are built of the blocks of all that i've read.

i think literature can, like theatre and art, help us to a deeper understanding of events and people and places. for example, i have a clearer picture of the tensions that still exist today between china and japan thanks to reading the novels of murakami. and my love of the russianness and the depths of the russian soul comes far more from dostoevsky, gogol and bulgakov than from putin.  perhaps my lack of much of an understanding of the world wars of the last century is because i've never really read novels that interpreted those events.

i heard on the radio the other day about a small theatre in copenhagen that's planning on staging a play based on the manifesto written by norwegian mass murderer anders breivik. even before it's been written and anyone knows what it is, there are many opinions about it. mostly outrage. but i think it's a brave thing to do. not to give voice to that cold-blooded murderer, but because art - theatre, literature, painting - is the very best means we humans have to get at an understanding of ourselves. how better to come to terms with the horror of what he did than to explore it through art?

why do you read? and what does it give you?


Anonymous said...

Lovely thoughts here. Never contemplated this before.

In answer to your questions, as I've gotten older I've taken to reading lightweight novels that explain love or life or family dynamics. I sometimes read memoirs of non-famous people to see how they handle issues in their lives. And I like a good book about some small, often overlooked, piece of history.

These sorts of books give me insight into the details of someone else's life and distract me from the bigger issues of the day. I read for entertainment first, then information.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Julie

I have read two of Julian Barnes books(The sense of an Ending and Pulse)very good books. i am also getting into Charles Dickens. I am reading Night Circus now(a very different book)--love the story!

Seems you are reading several good books.

Take Care

Tracy :)

Missouri Bend Paper Works said...

I read books for the same reasons you do....the range of life experiences are there, written about in ways that go beyond fact finding and just relating incidents. Depth and richness....like the arts of all kinds, books allow us to understand our humanity...even if just a little bit. I too prefer the actual book....I need to hold the object (and not a device!) in my hand....pick it up, put it down, savor, fall asleep, contemplate. Thank goodness, books will never go away. Great post....thanks!

will said...

I rarely read fiction anymore ... The cliche that reality is often stranger than fiction is true. The insights I had, when younger, from reading fiction, have morphed to something of more entertainment value.

I find non-fiction terrific for understanding who we are and how we got here.

For example, reading "FDR" by Jean Edward Smith provided a historic view of both Roosevelt and his nemesis: right-wingers (both Dems and Repubs) who were determined to foil his daily actions and to destroy his efforts once he was out of office.

ps: Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff is probably my most favorite fiction read in the past 10 years.

Lost Star said...

Reading has always meant a lot to me. I love curling up with a book and loosing myself in another world. I did this throughout my childhood.

However,I barely read right now. It is something I am struggling with as reading defined me for so long. Reading books upon books from the library growing up. Reading academic texts when studying. And I miss it. Focusing is hard though now. I can't shut myself into that world.

I need to find my reading zen. I can't wait until I have access to a library again (ours is being re-built) so I can find that place.

With regards to reading on the iPad. I can't get into it. Too many distractions! Give me a solid, amazing smelling book anyday.

Molly said...

my mother reckons the best thing about having a husband (or partner i guess), is having someone come to bed after you, pick the book off your face and turn off the light. i too must read before i sleep, no matter the lateness of the hour.
just off a total paul auster binge - 3 novels back to back. good stuff.

spudballoo said...

This is such an interesting read (excuse appalling pun). I just happened upon the programme on Radio 4, and was then so absorbed by it that I had to listen to the other 4 of the series. I didn't have a chance to stop and think about what reading means to me, though I kind of wish I had as it's fascinating to read your thoughts on the topic.

I found myself nodding along to Jeanette Winterson, whose essay focused on 'losing yourself in a book' which I think resonated the loudest for me. I read at night, like you do, every night and I can't sleep unless I do. But I rarely read in the day unless I'm on a train (hardly ever these days). It feels too lazy, too spoiling. But JW made an interesting point that so many of us think of reading as 'down time' (I certainly do), when in fact it's an 'up time'. I'm hoping to train myself in to this as I'd love to read more than I do.

Tim Parks made an interesting observation about the competitive nature of reading, about how we feel obliged to rush through novels (whether the greats, or the latest must read) almost so that we can say that we've read it and not be left out. I think there is sometimes an element of that for all of us - though the broader point he made is how reading is, by its nature, a solitary activity but once you've finished a book (a truly wonderful one) you can hardly wait to share it, to press it in to the hands of another bookworm so that they can read it and bask in the glow too. REading is definitely about that for me. I absolutely love sharing 'good reads', though book clubs have never really appealed.

I don't write in books though I wish I could. Something in my upbringing doesn't allow me. Though, unlike you, I now give up on books that don't engage me enough to keep going. It feels pretty naughty to be honest. And recently I pushed on with one which definitely improved as I got towards the end, and was just about worth the read.

Anyway, I think you'd enjoy the collection of essays. 'Stop what you're doing and read this' Each author comes at the topic from a very different vantage point. I found Zadie Smith's to be overly pleased with herself, but otherwise some really engaging essays.

Michelle said...

I think you'll like this:
The Business Case for Reading Novels... at my blog here:


Bee said...

I can't begin to answer the question this post asks, and I think you know me well enough to know that is because the answer would be too lengthy. (Ironically, I'm about to go to Goodreads and log in some of my recent reading.)

Anna Quindlen wrote a book called "How Reading Changed My Life." It totally resonated with me . . . and is basically a longer form of what you've mused on here.