Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Seeded Soil

Some days the world seems small and unlovely. Other days it seems vast and unspeakably gorgeous.

Some days, reading Proust is a treasure. Other days it is a slog.

But I think I might just finish Cities of the Plain sooner rather than later, which will put me back on track for my Three Years of Proust project. Yay!


Kind of on that subject, I posted this on Facebook the other day.

I got lots of helpful suggestions (thank you) and I still haven't decided which book it's going to be, although I bought a number of the suggested books at my favorite used bookstore the following day. But yesterday morning, while running, I thought over this post, and wondered if it wasn't emblematic of something about reading that's been bugging me for ages.

In November, I had a lovely conversation with my friend Melissa about books. She is a contemporary reader, someone who follows publications' book reviews and reads all the new stuff, all the stuff people are talking about right now. I do not do this; instead I dive back into the past and try to find out what the big deal was about The Sorrows of Young Werther anyway. In this conversation, both of us had reason to feel bad and inadequate about our reading practices, because there was so much we each didn't know about the other's preferred reading. But instead we got it out in the open, and it ended up that she asked me whether Moby Dick was really worth reading (I said it was) and I asked her whether Elena Ferrante was really that good (Melissa said she was).

This kind of cross-pollination is invaluable to me, because in my quest to read all the books in the world before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I've decided, full stop, that books which have passed the test of time ("classics," I might coin them, although Georgette Heyer romances don't necessarily qualify for that title) are of a higher priority to me than contemporary fiction. For the latter, my policy is to wait a while after a book comes out that everyone's talking about. If everyone's still talking about it five or ten years later, then I'll probably read it; otherwise? Mr. Faulkner and Mrs. Woolf wrote a lot of books that I haven't yet read.

The point is, Melissa can tell me whether new books are worth my time and attention right now instead of me having to subject them to the five-year test, and I can tell her that she can give Ulysses a pass and I won't tell a soul. I need readers like her in my life, and...well, she might need me a good deal less, but I am fairly sure that my having read Moll Flanders will be useful to someone, someday. (It was pretty good.)

All that said. The thing I was not, not, not trying to do with the Facebook post was show off about what I've read and what I commonly read. I worried, when I looked at these titles, that people might think I'm pompous about what and how I read. Even my mother, who has read more books than most people have seen, was impressed when I read Middlemarch. But that's not why I read it. It's not why I read any of these books. What I realized as I was running yesterday morning is that I read books, even Big Books, for the sake of reading them. Because I want to know what the big deal was about The Sorrows of Young Werther from reading it, not from the Wikipedia page. (It's also so I can attempt to build, inside my head, a kind of rickety understanding of the history of Western literature from reading novels instead of textbooks.)

So I talk about these big honking books that have been famous for several lifetimes and will be famous for many more, but it's a selfish kind of talk rather than a prideful kind. I want to have read these books not so I can say I did, or so I can tell the truth on book polls - although that's a nice perk - but because I want the inside of my head to grow as many kinds of flowers as possible. That's what books are for. They're seeded soil, not mile markers.

And hey, I think it's terrific for people to read only contemporary novels, or to read only romances, or to read only nonfiction. I want to have conversations with these people! Cross-pollination is necessary for human knowledge to evolve. And I'm not a miser with what I've read. I'll tell you all about it, even if I am a little embarrassed about reading so much and a little worried that everyone will think I'm some kind of snob or savant. I just...



On the same subject, I've read six of the ten books I mentioned wanting to read before January 23. Heh heh, [embarrassed blush]. Plus, I'm reading Wuthering Heights, which I am certain I read in high school or college and of which I apparently do not remember even a single sentence. I looked up this Wikipedia page about the Brontës quite at random the other day, because I couldn't believe they really all died before 40 without any children, but yes, they did, and wow, that page turned out to be worth reading. It posits (admittedly with no sources) that the Brontës were nearly outsider artists:
Due to their forced or voluntary isolation, the Brontë sisters constituted a separate literary group which neither had predecessors nor successors. There is not a 'Brontë line' such as exists among authors of realist and naturalist novels, and in poetry, the romantic, and the symbolic. Their influence certainly existed but it is difficult to define in its totality. ...There is however nothing that could constitute a literary vein.
That I found interesting. And this:
Emily Brontë (1818–1848) has been called the "Sphynx of Literature", writing without the slightest desire for fame and only for her own satisfaction. ...With a single novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), and poems of an elementary power, she reached the heights of literature. Almost unknown during her life, posterity classes her as "top level" in the literary canon of English literature. 
Really? Crikey. So Wuthering Heights went immediately on the list. I'm only reading it after dark, though. It seems appropriate.

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