The Pleasure of Reading

What’s the point of reading? Is there one? Is it the same for everyone? What follows below is my answer to the first question but, to tone down the suspense, my answers to numbers two and three are simply “yes” and “no”, respectively.

To me the most important thing I get from reading is a gradually better understanding of both individual and collective human nature. I get this from reading novels. A good novelist has, above all, a finely tuned sense of what makes the world go round, and what makes the world go round are people in all their individual and affiliated roles. After that what distinguishes a novelist are matters of technique, style and voice. e64600abfac38254652016b1aa6603b4

A good novelist, in my opinion, begins by drawing the reader into a dream of the author’s creation. Once in that dream, the reader should never be shaken into wakefulness by the author’s own affectations or clumsy writing. The writing must never get in the way of the story. A great novelist does all this and adds to it relevant, intense phrases and observations that call the reader to a newer and clearer understanding of something, usually causing him or her to think: Why couldn’t I have said that?

As an example, I offer a small and powerful quote from Don Delillo’s novel Running Dog, which I finished last week. It is one of his lesser known and studied stories, which, to me, makes this find even more pleasurable.

All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.

Why couldn’t I have said that?

The more I think about it the more I find it to be true. When you decide to conspire with anyone for any reason, you are forced to repress (give up, at least temporarily) a part of yourself. The conspiracy has to be nurtured and eventually become bigger than all the conspirators put together or they would eventually find it tedious.The original cause(s) may be noble, but the conspiracy de-nobilizes the conspirators. It brings me to a question I haven’t yet found the answer to: Can we ever give up a part of ourselves and still be true to anything?

I have the sense that Delillo’s quote could be rephrased to include conspiracy theorists as well as conspiracies themselves. Running Dog was first printed in 1978, well before the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing of  1995 and then 9/11 itself. Conspiracy theories have been raised concerning all three of these events and seem to have grown in number as time passed from one to the next. No doubt the proliferation of Web connections has made it much easier to embellish and foment these theories and the stories behind them; and, let’s not kid ourselves, some relatively small number of them may be true at their core.

So what does a person have to repress in order to promulgate a conspiracy theory? It may be different when different kinds conspiracies are suggested, but in general I would say integrity and a sense of justice are high on the list. We find it easier to blame “outsiders” for just about anything. Just look at all the attempts to connect some level of “foreign power” to the Oklahoma City bombing. Then we had the misguided “Stranger Danger” campaign that effectively took the spotlight of the likely offenders (relatives, neighbors and friends) and turned it full force on “outsiders”. Subscribing to unfounded theories can also be an outlet for hatred, prejudice, and fear, mostly of things and people unknown. Whatever value some few of these theories may have, their total can poison a culture, dividing compatriots into factions, and in essence doing the work of an enemy, real or imagined, against ourselves.

“All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.”

As for reading as pleasure, I’m honored to say that Margaret Atwood has spoken equally for me in her quote found just above the Title. When the reading is pleasurable we learn the most. Strangely enough this quote can be applied across a wide array of readers and readings. I am fully in sync with what Ms. Atwood said, but I can all but guarantee our reading lists are vastly different.

El Gozo de Leer

Si me preguntan, ¿En que consiste una buena obra de ficción?, diría que la mido sobre dos dimensiones: 1) el estilo fluido de escritua que mete al lector en un sueño que nunca sea interrumpido por afectaciones o tropiezos del autor (por ejem. Salon de belleza de Mario Bellatín); y 2) otro estilo más cerebral que detiene el lector a lo largo de su lectura porque llega una frase tan memorable que hay que ponderarla antes de volver a leer lo que la sigue (por ejem. Estrella distante de Roberto Bolaño).

Terminé de leer Éstrella distante esta mañana poco después de desayunar. En el último capítulo el narrador viaja en tren por las afueras de Barcelona con el detective chileno Abel Romero, “uno de los policías más famosos de la época de Allende”. Éste comienza a hablar de lo que piensa hacer cuando reciba su considerable pago por el trabajo que los dos  llevan a cabo juntos. Dijo  que sería “empresario de pompas fúnebres”, y siguió enumerando las cualidades indispensables del buen director de funeraria. Ahora pasa a lo rentable que puede ser este negocio:

En los ataúdes la ganancia puede llegar a ser del trescientos por ciento. Tengo un compadre en Santiago de los tiempos de la Bridaga que se dedica a hacer sillas. Le hablé el otro día por teléfono del asunto y dijo que de las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.

Obviamente me eché a reir. A carcajadas primero, pero de golpe las misma palabras me hicieron reconocer mi condición de peregrino sobre esta tierra.

“De las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.” Concluí con cierta ansiedad que esta frase se realiza más fácilmente en su sentido figurado que en su sentido literal. En el taller, no hay un solo paso que convierta una silla en un ataúd. Dele este trabajo a cualquier carpintero y le dirá que la idea es absurda. Mejor empezar con tablas.

Pero en su sentido figurado, es posible estar sentado en una silla en un momento y estar listo para el ataud en el otro. Ya lo había visto. Sé a ciencia cierta que sucede.

El primer trabajo que conseguí después de graduarme del colegio fue en el departmento del registro de acciones en un banco internacional en todo el centro de Chicago. Un día para almorzar bajé a la cafetería en la planta baja del edificio, pasé por la fila y comencé a llevar la bandeja a una mesa con sillas disponibles. De repente, hubo un ruido, un ruido que no solamente se oía sino también se sentía debajo de los pies sobre el piso de concreto. Un hombre, de camisa blanca y corbata rayada, tambaleaba sobre su silla mientras ésta daba unas vueltas en forma de arco. Después se cayó y dejó de temblar. Todas las personas cercanas formaban un círculo alredador de él, pero a una distancia amplia. Con ganas mórbidas de presenciar todo pero sin suficiente proximidad para ser contagiadas.

La muerte en todas sus formas: temprana, tarde, imprevista, anhelada, inevitable, esperada, reconfortante, espeluznante y más que nada, caprichosa.

“De las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.” Se ríe primero y se contempla después.

Raymond Carver Revisited

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Raymond Carver with the love of his last 11 years, Tess Gallagher

Shortly after these two met, Carver’s doctor told him that his drinking was certainly going to kill him, and he emphasized sooner rather than later. Raymond’s spirits were notably renewed in Tess’ company and shortly after the doctor’s pronouncement he quit drinking and joined AA. Then, after surviving another eight years of life, a different doctor diagnosed him with terminal lung cancer. Almost two years later, on August 3, 1988, Raymond Carver died at the age of 50.

During those last two years this man, much too young to die, came to grips with the death rising up inside him. He and Tess dedicated themselves to compiling a book of his poetry mixed here and there with other poems, mostly by Anton Chekov. Tess and Raymond managed to finish the content of A New Path to the Waterfall before his death, but the task of compiling it all into book form fell to Tess.

In her Introduction to this small book, Tess Gallagher said:

It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity.

His poetry written during these last two years was replete with shadows of his impending death. But at first he wrote with touches of humor as he did in “What the Doctor Said”:

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

What a wry response to being told that he had at least thirty-two tumors on one lung:

“I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that”

Then, later, through his poems he confronted reality head on. I can imagine “Through the Boughs” as having been  written on the day that he came to feel more dead than alive, that inevitable time when fight becomes surrender and the present takes on more worth more than the future.

Through the Boughs

Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking

birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think,

that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was,

they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes.

The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and

won’t stop blowing.… Give me your hand for a time. Hold on

to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we

thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was,

those ragged birds cry.

Time is at the heart of what Carver expresses here. But time as what? It is time that was before all things changed; time as any day now, any minute, time of the present which seems to stand still while hands are held; and time viewed naïvely as an ally. 

To me it was time cut short. The final silencing of a uniquely talented voice that love had recently strengthened.