Friday, February 24, 2012

Ruined by Reading - In a good way!

Title: Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
Author: Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Publisher: Beacon Press
ISBN: 0-8070-7083-1
Pages: 119

I haven't savored a book in a long time; not since last summer when I read Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn. You know what I mean by savoring – the kind of swirling of words around your tongue and mind just because you like the way they sound and what they mean. Like a great wine, a decadent dessert or a creamy coconut curry, you want to ponder the taste before you swallow and go on to the next page. Books to savor are the ones that I write in, comment on, and sticky-note. I return to them like a child who requests the same birthday dinner, because that is her favorite and there is comfort and inspiration in the familiar (tacos and Westhaven cake). This is a savory book!

It is part memoir, part manifesto for readers, and part book-autobiography. Like Sue Bender's  Plain and Simple (another very savory book) there are no chapter titles or section headings, just meanderings through the life of a reader/writer who was drawn to books at an early age, which almost determined her life as a connoisseur of books (not texts, according to Schwartz, as that is too business-like “as if family treasures were being relegated to the distant airless safe-deposit box. Who ever curled up happily to spend the evening with a text?” pg. 108).

Here are some of my favorites, which I'm providing, without commentary, so you can swirl them around on your own tongue and mind.

"Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.”(pg. 3)

"In the midst of such confusion, perhaps at about eight or nine years old, I discovered a book that told me more about who I was than anything before or since. That was A Little Princess....and I read it over and over, as children will do with special books. I still return to it every few years; it draws me, the way a certain piece of music or a certain landscape draws people back every so often. Each time it bestows on me, yet again, some crucial knowledge that is all too easy to lose, that the world seems bent on making us forget." (p.47)

"At bottom, of course, the issue in choosing what to read (and what to do and how to live) is the old conflict, dating from the Garden, of pleasure versus duty: what we want to read versus what we think we ought to read, or think we ought to want to read." (pg. 96)

"Isaiah Berlin, in The Hedgehog and the Fox quotes the Greek poet Archilocus, "the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing" meaning that hedgehogs connect everything to one all-embracing principle, while foxes, "entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal . . . seizing on a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves." (p. 102) (Here is a quick summary of Berlin's article -  Isaiah Berlin's Hedgehogs and Foxes.)

"For here is the essence of true reading: learning to live in another's voice, to speak another's language. Reading is escape—why not admit it?—but not from job or troubles. It is escape from the boundaries of our own voice and idioms." (pp. 111-112)

“We gaze at marks on a page, put there by a machine, recognizable as words. Each one denotes something discrete but we do not, cannot, read them as such, except in the first days of learning how. They offer themselves in groups with wholes greater than the sum of the parts. As in human groups, the individual members behave in relation to their companions: each word presents aspects of itself suited to the ambiance, amplifying some connotations and muting others. Their respective rankings must change too. A word will be key here, play a supporting role there, and in each successive appearance will be weightier and more richly nuanced. All this we register faster than the speed of the light illuminating our page, hardly aware of noting the valence, assessing the role and position, of each word as it flies by, granting it its place in the assemblage.

Still more remarkable, these inky marks generate emotion, even give the illusion of containing emotion, while it is we who contribute the emotion. Yet it was there in advance too, in the writer. What a feat of transmission: the emotive powers of the book, with no local habitation, pass safely from writer to reader, unmangled by printing and binding and shipping, renewed and available whenever we open it.

Semioticists have unraveled these miracles in detail; even to call them miracles sounds ingenuous. After all, most aesthetic experience rests on transference through an inanimate medium. What is painting but oils smeared on canvas, or chamber music but bows drawn across strings? Reading is not the same, though. There is no sense organ that words fit like a glove, as pictures fit the eye or music the ear. Intricate neural transactions take place before words find their elusive target, before the wraith we call the "writer" finds the reader.

For dwelling in the book, however remote in time and space, is this imaginary being, this missing link whom no reader has ever glimpsed. Yes, from the visits of Dickens and Wilde to today’s performances, readers flock to see writers, to meet the person who has given them pleasure; perhaps the right of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.

Since the book, too, doesn’t possess an independent or sensory existence but must teased, opened and fathomed, we enjoy the heady power of being necessary to its life. The real book is the prince hidden inside the frog. We open it, and our eyes give the kiss of regeneration. This power is what intoxicates. The thinking of others does not interfere with our own free thinking, but meshes with it in a splendid rite of recovery.

If we make books happen, they make us happen as well. Reading teaches receptivity, Keats’s negative capability. It teaches us to receive, in stillness and attentiveness, a voice possessed temporarily, on loan. The speaker lends herself and we do the same, a mutual and ephemeral exchange, like love. Yet unlike love, reading is a pure activity. It will gain us nothing but enchantment of the heart. And as we grow accustomed to receiving books in stillness and attentiveness, so we can grow to receive the world, also possessed temporarily, also enchanting the heart.

Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not that we will know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void. When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having had it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain bound in both vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear: this has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession." (pp. 116-117)

Now that you've gotten a taste for yourself – go get your own copy so you too can sticky-note, underline and comment.

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