Of novel reading and other sins
Some thoughts on trance
I was up too late last night. I knew better. I had every intention of going to bed early, and desperately needed the rest to recover from yet another cold. But I made a mistake. I got into a novel.
I don’t mean I read a novel, I mean I got into it. I was absorbed. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? It’s not so much losing my hold on reality as reality losing its hold on me. It’s knowing how late it is, knowing that I should sleep, that I have to get up early tomorrow and work, that my concentration will be ruined, and yet I turn page after page after page. It’s a waking dream I can’t wake up from.
I have been musing lately that I want to read more. Which is odd — I read quite a bit, for teaching, for writing, for pleasure. But these days I mainly read nonfiction, especially when I want to relax, and that bothers me. I love the feeling of reading a novel. When I was a teenager, I always had one in my backpack. I have shelves upon shelves of novels, and yet it’s easier to finish almost anything else: history, poetry, literary criticism, psychology, you name it.
It’s not lost on me that I’ve grown older in exactly the way novels told me I would. The nineteenth-century novels I read as a young woman taught me that fiction was for women — and therefore suspect — while serious men read nonfiction. Nonfiction was “improving.” Novels could only lead you astray, you see. There was something immoral, even potentially sinful, about the fantasies they fostered.
For years now I’ve assumed the reason I don’t read as many novels as I’d like to is my attention span. I find it harder to get into a novel, to travel to its world. It needs to entrance me — frankly, many novels don’t. And if I put down the book too early I’m just as likely to lose my grip on that sensation, to be unable to recover it. (This trance state is not unlike the one I need to enter to write, and just as fragile and hard to restore.) I thought I didn’t have the patience.
Last night I began wondering something else. What if I don’t allow myself to enter novels because I’m afraid I won’t be able to leave? When I’m really in a book, I forget about my responsibilities. I don’t care about bedtimes or mealtimes or deadlines. I lose track of things, of my duties to others and my own body’s needs. It’s a kind of possession, but instead of a demon, I’ve been taken over by a story.
The short novel I was reading last night was Alessandro Barrico’s Seta, or Silk. My Italian is elementary, but I had an edition with glosses and it’s not a hard read. Appropriately, it’s a story about a man’s obsession with a love just out of reach. I was about to go to bed, but I realised I had twenty pages till the end. In English, that would be a matter of five, ten minutes, but because I was decoding and guessing and filling in the words I didn’t know, it took me the better part of an hour. I note this in wonder. It would have been easy to put down the book. Was I taken in by the silk merchant’s obsession? Was the novel’s repetitive structure a kind of incantation that hypnotized me? I had picked up the book in the bath, and there I was, forty minutes later, dried and ready to sleep, but sitting on the bath mat in my nightgown, reading.
The novel’s trance lasts beyond the last page. I can’t do something proper even once I’m done. Last night I lay in bed replaying the final scenes of Seta in my head. A few days ago I finished Patrick Süskind’s novella Die Taube (The Pigeon), also about a lonely man whose life is unexpectedly derailed by a mysterious creature, and found myself wanting to describe how powerful it was but without describing it. I wanted someone else to read it, immediately, and for us to say: that moment! and that moment! and then to make noises that conveyed how we felt in that moment without having to explain it. Without breaking the trance.
I would like this in my writing too, if all I had to do were to say to my reader, “remember that?” And then we would both smile and let out an “ahh” of release and then feel restless until we found a point of contact again. That one.
In her book Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich claims that one reason ecstatic dancing was increasingly outlawed in western European cultures is that it interfered with modern discipline. Soldiers who drank and danced weren’t as good at marching like machines into war. Workers who spent their evenings in revelry weren’t as good at tending to the machines in factories.
Is this true? I don’t know. I do think there is less space for pleasure now, at least the kind of pleasure that transports. I know that when most people set a new year’s resolution to read more, they usually mean they want to get through Cal Newport or Yuval Noah Harari. You know, they want the books they could just as well read a blog post about. Or, if they have pretensions to being real readers, they want to post a stack of books on social media, to show their friends that they are reading the right books — ethically conscious, say, or deliberately difficult. Best of all is a seven-book series by a Norwegian dude, ideally if each book is a brick. No one should get the idea that they read frivolously, irresponsibly. If they’re going to read, that should look like discipline too.
I don’t see how the reading I love best — ecstatic, transporting — can fit into an adult life. It’s also mildly unacceptable, even among people who work with literature. A few weekends ago I got caught up in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. I just wanted a quote for a column, but before I knew it, I was spending the weekend lying on the couch, reading for hours on end. I mentioned this to a friend who also teaches literature, and she said, “it must be nice to read a book.” That didn’t shock me so much as my own reaction. I desperately wanted to say: “oh but this was for writing, this was for work.”
But the truth was, I had already written the column. I read the novel for myself. Because I liked the premise. Because I found it funny. Because I wanted to find out what happened. Most of all, because it reminded me of being a teenager, and not having to put the book down.
That column I mention above appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, and it’s a defense of romance novels. I had a lot of fun writing it. I also wrote in praise of gluttony recently, and about the dark side of gift giving.
Also in the TLS: a review of a new book about medieval women, and a short piece on a book about failure that failed to be failey enough.
The second issue of the European Review of Books is out, and I contributed a note about a writing darling I was forced to kill (the link is just to an excerpt, but the physical journal is a delight).
Still on medieval women, I appeared on BBC4 Woman’s Hour to talk about the early medieval woman found at Northamptonshire, and the meaning of her bling.
Finally, my new podcast series with Mary Wellesley is now airing. Called “Medieval Beginnings,” it’s a tour of some famous and some lesser known medieval works of literature, all of them fascinating. It’s available by subscription from the London Review of Books’ Close Readings Plus.
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Wow yes, that idea that non-fiction is somehow more virtuous than fiction. I'm married to someone who likes nonfiction more than I do, and I'm still training myself not to think that their reading is "better" than mine and feeling guilty because 95% or more of my reading is fiction.
You know, I'm beginning to wonder if you are living my life on some level, at least in part. Last year I managed to finish only six books, and none of them were novels if I remember correctly. I found it quite odd because I did more reading last year than I had ever done. I was almost always reading something.
And then towards the end of last year I realised that I could no longer read fiction easily. I tried to read some new things, none of them worked out. Then I tried to get back into the world of some of my favourite stories and that didn't work either. Coming into this year I think I've subconsciously given up on it but this essay has given me hope. I'll pick up a novel right after this.