What is ‘reading’?: A failed blog post about books

About a year ago I began writing a monthly post on this blog responding to the books that I had read over the last month – not reviews so much, nothing so considered; more a summation of what had stuck with me from those books. It’s not that I don’t like book reviews – people pay me to do those – but that I wanted to move beyond the balanced, culturally-engaged appraisal they call for to see if there was more to get out of writing about books once the books had been finished, put down, half-forgotten, and allowed to relax into the seething primordial swamp of read books, their sentences lost among the millions of other sentences read, processed, filed, erased. (It’s no surprise that I count among my favourite critical books Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.)

I kept it up for all of 2012, not always posting on time – but then not all of the books were timely books – and letting myself slip only for December. And, indeed, what I found as the year went by is that single issues, single books, tended to dominate the posts. Some months had photographs of big piles of books at the top (nine, ten, eleven books), some three, or even two. Sometimes those books were big books, and so took up lots of reading time (January 2013 I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which doesn’t leave much head space for anything else) but sometimes I had read other books but didn’t much feel like writing about them.

Then there’s the question of how you actually define reading. For a book to be read, must it be completed? Properly engaged with? Where do you draw the limits? If I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain does that mean I’ve not ‘been reading’ anything else? No. Also by my bed is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which I’ve been dipping into after a discussion of philosophy books with my good friend Neil and his son Harrison, who’s just starting to study the subject at school. As part of that discussion I took down from the shelf my favourite philosophical anthology Porcupines – that got read, too, a bit.

Last Saturday, while supposedly watching Borgen on television with my wife, I found myself dipping into another of my favourite ‘dipping into’ books, Clive James’s book of essays Cultural Amnesia; I read two or three entries, including his spirited takedown of Walter Benjamin (“the unearned omniscience of post-modernism depends on its facility for connecting things without examining them”).

Up at Norwich I picked up the hardback of Zadie Smith’s NW in the Waterstones sale and read a few chapters of that on the train home. My bookmark is at page 60 – it’s good, I’m enjoying it, it seems relevant to me, both as a middle class Londoner and a (give or take) writer who counts Smith (though the feeling’s hardly mutual) as a ‘rival’, but it’s not great, it’s not blown me away; I probably would have continued with it if I hadn’t been committed to the Thomas Mann (which is great, which is consistently blowing me away). There are some books that can be put down and picked up weeks later with no loss of connection; others that can’t. These two are good examples of that difference.

Last month I started reading Javier Marías’s The Dark Back of Time, his non-fiction companion to All Souls, which I also read in December, and this month I have continued with it in fits and starts. It’s less interesting than the novel, which is superb, a meticulous construction that puts all its effort into building towards a single, final, devastating image, which it then processes and analyses with reference to the multiple themes and references that have gone towards its bringing-to-light.

I bought Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, bought on the Twitter recommendation of @seventydys, and read the first chapter of that. Filed it away as To Be Read (Soon), but also possibly Not As Likely To Be As Important To Me As Kusamakura, Which I Venerate. I also read some of my Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, in the bath, as you do, and had some bath-time thoughts about haiku, and the cultural power of words in white space. Also in the bath I read some (no more than a chapter) of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (charity shop find), and Carlos Fuentes’ Vlad (a few pages), and it was in the bath that I read much of the Hughes. I also read, just the other day, a few pages of Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, a book I had bought for  my son and thus felt it my duty to at least vet.

I read a few stories by Katherine Mansfield in preparation for a blog post marking 90 years since her death; also a couple of stories from The Persephone Book of Short Stories, a Christmas present – also a few pages of Wildlife in Trust: A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation, another Christmas present. Before Christmas I also read, as a bedtime story, some of A Christmas Carol.

Other books that have come into the house, that have been opened, flicked through, ‘read’ – in that words from them have been processed by me, to some degree: First Novel by Nicholas Royle, Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano and A Great Big Shining Star by Niall Griffiths (all to be reviewed).

Books that I have bought, and therefore at least also flicked through: A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker (I read 4 pages, and enjoyed them – but then I never finished The Anthologist, so surely that should take the upper hand, should be finished, or continued with), Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (three pages, didn’t like it at all, will probably never be picked up again, but at least I feel like I’ve read enough of this fashionable writer to have formed some kind of judgment).

I read a few more pages of Augustine’s Confessions, just to keep it bubbling along in my consciousness. I want to read on. It seems more relevant and insightful and wise and thought-provoking than, say, Montaigne’s Essays, which I have never been able to enjoy beyond their cultural significance. (What they did was unprecedented, and revolutionary; what they say is, when you get down to it, often downright silly, or ‘wrong’)

I’ve barely done a stitch of work on my PhD, but I have opened and looked in Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge. I’ve also ‘read’ my Concise Collins Dictionary, and my Penguin Roget’s Thesaurus. I’ve read (in that I’ve continued writing) bits of two stories and a novel I’m writing. (I’ve also ‘read’ various pieces of student writing, and god knows how much stuff online.)

Last night I cracked open The White Review #6 and read two things: Scott Esposito‘s very good essay on circularity vs. linearity in realist and post-realist literature (I liked his ‘domestication of failure’, which I think chimed with my blog post on Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, though my point wasn’t really about that book, but about books like it); and Helen DeWitt’s Stolen Luck (extract here), which I enjoyed primarily for its typographic experimentation, cutting off lines prematurely, and so on.

All of which is to say, I think, that the idea of reading is vastly more complex than saying, ‘this is what I’m reading at the moment’. Text, sentences, words, come into your cortex through myriad paths, only some of which are the pages of books – but, as this interminable list of books that I have ‘read’ (‘from’) while I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain goes to show, even those are extensive. And much as I’m enjoying the Mann, and have been noting down particular passages, I’ve been reading it at bedtime, with my bedhead on, and perhaps it is less part of my thinking breathing word-processing consciousness as, say, the Zadie Smith, which I may not even finish, and can’t say I find particularly good, simply because it addresses me, reaches out to me, as Londoner, writer, young-middle-ager, is apposite, apt, ‘right’.

The very interminableness of the list (I’ve stopped getting up to look around the house for fear I’ll stumble across more books I’ve ‘read’ over the past three weeks, or whatever it is) brings to mind such other idiocies as George Perec’s ‘Attempt at an Inventory…’ in which he shared a list of everything he had eaten and drunk in a year, and the mini-camera I read about recently that is supposed to fit to your lapel, or something, and record every damn second of your life. In all of this the fact remains, it is the action at the periphery that is what is interesting: the Thomas Mann is my midday meal, the book I ‘am reading’, but this makes it something of a blind spot. As ‘my reading book’ – specifically my ‘reading in bed book’ it kind of gets ignored, has a special non-attentive attention devoted to it, I collapse into it. The eyes drift down the page. It is a given, taken for granted. And so is less likely to jump up and fix its claws into me, as might a single bathtime haiku, or line from Augustine, or structural trick from NW, or typographic one from DeWitt. (This isn’t the case, by and large. Thomas Mann resists being taken for granted by being so magnificently, monumentally anaesthetic, incident-free, discursive, static. But enough.)

The point of this post, when I started it, was to give a summary of the topics I had covered – or that had arose, as often I didn’t know what I was going to write until I sat down – in those ‘Monthly Reading’ posts, but that hasn’t happened. I got diverted. Hopefully profitably. That post will have to wait. Right now I have writing that needs doing.

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