Wednesday, March 07, 2007

slow pleasurable slog

My mother often introduces me to her cronies (and once, to my horror, to another writer) as a 'professional writer.'

By which I think she means 'a writer who is has been published AND paid for her work.'

Which is harmless enough, I suppose, but EVERY SINGLE TIME I have to remind myself not to scowl openly, as much from the (ick bad) maternal boasting as from the distinction she seems to be making.

Invariably, mid-introduction, my mother gives me the squinty look that says 'you're scowling openly.'

But whatever my status as a writer (intramural? midget league? semi-pro?), I do consider myself to be a good amateur reader - at least of fiction.

As such, my reading falls into several categories, a few of which I have decided to describe whilst my daughter bathes and is bathed in the other room.

There are the books I read at top speed, that I consume rather than read.

There is no noticing here, no at-a-distance observation of themes; this is quick and dirty reading, and it doesn't seem to matter whether or not the writing is high or low or somewhere in between.

That said, this type of book is usually brought into the house by my partner. He reads a wide swath of genre fiction, from mystery to thriller to crime to fantasy. He is also a niche market in and of himself, willing to purchase and read any number of books of non-fiction on China.

He also acts as a filter. When I hear him making noises of appreciation over a particular book or author, I pay attention...and pick up the books once he's thrown them over his shoulder, Friar Tuck-like (Rocket Robin Hood reference, anyone?).

As such, I blazed through (consuming and being consumed by) Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the first three Jasper Fforde books, and the first three of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series.

These books made me gritty-eyed with fatigue (making me stay up late), they made me crabby in the face of banal conversation (when I could have been reading...), but most of all, they made me glad.

To be so completely possessed by a character, a setting, a story is to be reminded why I enjoy literature - the reading as well as the writing of it, both of which are capable of taking me up out of the tangle and dust of my day to day life.

In a similar vein, I often find myself returning to the comfort of much-loved books, though recently it's been much-loved authors.

The practice is much like re-upholstering a favorite chair. You need to paint and paper yourself with the particular arrangement of words and ideas that distinguishes each writer and to enter these books is akin to sitting at your table at your cafe - the landscape is familiar and still somehow different every time.

As such, I recently found myself re-reading all of Neil Gaiman's novels.

Though American novelist Jane Smiley is a recent discovery, I have found a similar space in her books and so have been taking them like tonics - most recently A Thousand Acres and At Paradise Gate.

A second category of reading includes books whose content is so episodic or so dense that it would be impossible to read them in one go or even in the course of several days.

On-going examples include Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters (Selected Correspondence) and Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle respectively.

These books need much gnawing at the ideas they contain, and are best suited for an hour in a chair pushed into the wash of late afternoon sunlight or the forty or so minutes when the bath is hottest.

Any attempts to read on, in my experience, is unsatisfying.

Sometimes I go too long between sessions with these types of books and they fall off my reading list but most often they just find their way into my hand when I am on the cusp of forgetting the where when hows.

Finally, there are the books I read because they've been assigned to me (lately, Jennifer McCartney's Afloat and also Jen Sookfong Lee's The End of East).

While I enjoy whatever is on offer in these books, I am also fiercely paying attention, busy with all the NOTICING and ANALYZING it takes for even the shortest review.

As such, I find that reading assigned books lacks the one confirmed pleasure of being bookish: completely and utterly losing the self.

I think is this is because those all caps actions are rooted in my writerly self and my personality and not that of the writer whose work I am reading.

The 'I' is silent but unavoidable: I NOTICE. I ANALYZE.

That is not to say that this type of reading is overly critical. Though it is more pleasurable to be completely subsumed in a book, it is more useful to me as a writer to read closely and carefully.


tracy said...

I have a similar reading style; however, if I can't find anything to be critical about other than being critical, I usually quit reading the book, and move onto something more critical.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Nice new look to your blog!

Ariel Gordon said...

Thanks...though I haven't finished adding all the bells and whistles that my old template had.

BionicPerry said...

Look. I've said it before, I'll say it again. You're a WRITER! And a damn good POET!
You have scads of published pieces out there in the literary mag world, and uberscad amounts of non-fiction bits. You're a WRITER! Say it! Say it!
Now stop reading my comments and put the finishing touches on your latest poem so you can publish a poetry book. The deadly-expensive chapbook is looking mighty good i that department, but you've got more poems that need release into the world!
Hey. Stop scowling at me like that. Just do it!

Ariel Gordon said...

You probably enjoyed that very much, Perry, so I won't do much more than smirk at you...

How's your writing going, by the way?

David Jón Fuller said...

Okay, I have to agree with Mr. Bionic Perry here, many months after the fact.

Ariel, stop scowling even privately at the idea that you might actually be a writer. If you write, you are a writer. If you write and get published, you are a writer. If you write, get published and get paid for it, you are a writer. If you do all of the above and also get an award, you are a writer. I probably scowl more than you in general, hard as that may be to believe, but I never scowl at being called a writer.... sure there is always more writing one could be doing, and it would be nice to have a 100% publication rate, but hey, life is not nice. If more people put more energy into writing even personal correspondence and diaries, never mind full-blown manifestos and multi-volume novels, the world would be a better place. Writing doesn't have to be a state you achieve, it's just something you do.

As for the how to read/criticize a book idea... that is certainly true. C.S. Lewis once wrote that it is impossible to experience something and analyze it at the same time — analysis usually comes later. However, with a book review deadline looming you can't really fart around, so naturally you keep your eyes peeled for passages to quote and so forth.

Anyway, interesting blog as always!