Geoff Dyer · reading · reading projects

Setting on a long journey…

It seems that my aversion to reading literature is slowly fading away.

I’ve been thinking about this issue, about all the general dissatisfactions regarding my reading. To use Geoff Dyer’s words:

If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionatelly smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. [..] Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

 ”Reader’s Block‘, from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

 

For the best part of my reading life, the main reason why I read literature was knowledge. I wanted to get to know the world, to learn as much as possible about a human being, to embrace a variety of perspectives and gain experience. I hunted for profound thoughts, searched for truth and principles, worked on developing my self-awareness, and hoped to gain some wisdom…

I realized that for the past few years I have been desperately trying to preserve the original strength of this twenty-years-standing reason for reading, that I have been refusing to acknowledge its recent irrelevance.

If I remember correctly, it was the summer of 2015 when I started complaining about how I had nothing left to learn. Of course, I didn’t mean literally nothing, but nothing that wouldn’t be ”a [relatively] small increment to the sum of knowledge” that I had… The aversion towards literature that I’ve been experiencing for the last three months had two main roots: a brain strain and the strongest feeling of the pointlessness of reading that I’ve ever felt.

Dissatisfaction with reading was very much connected to my striving to hold on to knowledge as the number one reason for reading. I am now fully aware that this needs to be changed if I’m to enjoy literature again. The best course of action would be to concentrate more on a different kind of knowledge. Not profound thoughts but style and descriptions, not a human being but the human being, not the truth but the landscape and the atmosphere, et cetera…

Also, I want to give my reading a little bit of direction. I miss that. (Sometimes I think about going back to university.) Acting upon a wish to get (better) acquainted with the literature of the countries outside of the Western Europe and the United States, I am setting on a journey around the world. As I wrote in my rough reading plan for this year, the countries of the former Soviet Union are as good a place to start as any.

From the Baltic countries, I will continue southwards to Ukraine, then southeast across the Caucasus, and then head straight east to the ”STANs”, with Russia as the final destination of this part of the journey.

I am not setting any deadlines.

Source: historyofrussia.org
John Steinbeck · reading

The Log from the Sea of Cortez. #1951 club

Still I struggle both with reading and writing.

During the previous month I read Barbery and Shakespeare, but without much success or satisfaction. Or joy, for that matter… It’s an expected effect of a lack of interest.

My feelings towards this state of affairs oscillate between acceptance and concern. On one hand, I embrace it as something normal, natural. Why should it not be? There are periods when one’s interest in reading (literature) drops, when the appeal of other interests is decidedly stronger. The brain needs variety, seeks and prefers a different kind of engagement every once in a while. It’s as simple as that… On the other hand, there is a tendency to think about this as of a problem, to sit and ponder the gravity of the reasons for the detachment, to try to come up with a solution/a plan to get back to the ”desired” state of mind as soon as possible…

I am more inclined towards the first line of reasoning. It’s more sensible as well as healthier.

Also, the reasons for the ”repairment” are all completely wrong and ridiculous: a) a faint wish to feel a strong desire to read, b) a thought that I should be reading because there are so many books and so little time, c) a sense of fear that, if I don’t push myself into reading, if I fail to keep the continuity (no matter the quality), I might never want to get back to reading literature again.

What rubbish! That I even have to reason against these ”reasons” is annoying enough. There are better things to occupy my mind with, better things to spend my time and energy on.

Working in the garden, for example.. observing the growth of its flora and the busyness of its fauna, getting better acquainted with the species living in my immediate surroundings (just the other day, for the first time in my life, I saw a snail chewing), learning and reading about nature in general…

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this post – The 1951 club, hosted by Karen and Simon.

My intention was to read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us for the occasion, but in the end, I opted not to. After a quick comparative check of the structure and style of both of these books, Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez seemed to be a better option. I thought it could be more accessible as it’s offering more variety in themes without being too demanding in terms of presence of mind and concentration it requires.

The Log combines marine biology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, and the best way to read it is one entry at a time (one per an afternoon would perhaps be ideal) since they give plenty food for thought.

It’s all seamlessly woven in together: collecting reports, observations about animals, accounts of the lives of the small coastal towns in the Gulf, adventures with the Mexicans, anecdotes from the life on the boat, musings on different topics (scientists, technology, sea monsters, teleological vs. non-teleological way of thinking, mutation, cannibalism, to name some).

The portraits and sketches of crew members were amongst the most enjoyable parts of the book. The good humor with which Steinbeck brought their personalities to light is infectious. Actually, good humor and wit are dominant characteristics of the narrative as a whole. Steinbeck is very observant, a master painter.

I was surprised to learn that Steinbeck’s wife Carol was a part of the crew. Not a single trace of her can be found on the pages. Similarly, Steinbeck’s or Ricketts’ names are nowhere mentioned. The book is written in first person plural so, most of the time a person is referred to as ”one of us” I guess it wouldn’t be wrong to suppose that the person in question is either Ricketts or Steinbeck… A strikingly beautiful eulogy at the end of the book compensates for Ricketts’ absence from the narrative.

There is a delightful and hilariously funny episode featuring the Sally Lightfoots which tells of a battle of wits:

These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape, and to a less degree inside the Gulf, they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any one of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in little puffs of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colors, reds and blues and warm browns. We tried for a long time to catch them. Finally, seeing fifty or sixty in a big canyon of rock, we thought to outwit them. Surely we were more intelligent, if slower, than they. Accordingly, we pitted our obviously superior intelligence against the equally obvious physical superiority of Sally Lightfoot. Near the top of the crevice a boulder protruded. One of our party, taking a secret and circuitous route, hid himself behind this boulder, net in hand. He was completely concealed even from the stalk eyes of the crabs. Certainly they had not seen him go there. The herd of Sallys drowsed on the rocks in the lower end of the crevice. Two more of us strolled in from the seaward side, nonchalance in our postures and ingenuousness on our faces. One might have thought that we merely strolled along in a contemplation which severely excluded Sally Lightfoots. In time the herd moved ahead of us, matching our nonchalance. We did not hurry, they did not hurry. When they passed the boulder, helpless and unsuspecting, a large net was to fall over them and imprison them. But they did not know that. They moved along until they were four feet from the boulder, and then as one crab they turned to the right, climbed up over the edge of the crevice and down to the sea again.

But, crabs were not the only ones that successfully resisted human advances. The crew struggled with equipment as well (an outboard motor and a camera), and these struggles were a constant source of humor throughout the book.

It is impossible to say how bad our moving pictures were—one film laboratory has been eager to have a copy of the film, for it embodies in a few thousand feet, so they say, every single thing one should not do with a camera. As an object lesson to beginners they think it would be valuable. If we took close-ups of animals, someone was in the light; the aperture was always too wide or too narrow; we made little jerky pan shots back and forth; we have one of the finest sequences of unadorned sky pictures in existence—but when there was something to take about which we didn’t care, we got it perfectly. We dare say there is not in the world a more spirited and beautiful picture of a pair of blue and white shorts than that which we took passing Sail Rock.

For all the troubles they had with it, the camera was just a machine they failed to learn to operate properly. The motor, on the other hand, was a ”hateful living thing” that had a personality and quirks of its own:

We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

The more I think about it, the more I like The Log. I might be going back to some of the episodes for a dose of light and laughter. The only Steinbeck’s work I read before this was Of Mice and Men. I don’t remember much about it. I mean, I don’t remember if there was humor. It wouldn’t hurt to revisit it.

reading

Happy New Plans!

What a month December has been!

Just as I was starting to relax, to look forward to a period of resting and reading, a wave of work came and smashed all my intentions. I was left with no time to read Woolf, no time to write about Christa Wolf novels read during November… What’s even worst, upon finishing the work, I was left with no desire to get back to literature.

I’ve read less this year, compared to 2015th, but there’s been a great number of titles I found remarkable and important. Wide Sargasso Sea was the year’s highlight, all three of Peirenne’s titles that I’ve read during the Women In Translation Month (Beside the Sea, The Mussel Feast and Chasing the King of Hearts) were excellent, Wolf’s Cassandra and Patterns of Childhood as well.

I have to mention Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Correspondence: Ariadna Efron and Boris Pasternak. Sadly, I managed to write a thought or two about the last one only.

Three years ago I whined about how my reading is too anglophilic or, to be closer to truth, too eurocentric. Not much has changed since then. A couple of things led me closer towards a wish to tackle the problem in a systematic way. First, I discovered the wonderful work of Chingiz Aitmatov (which was the second highlight of the year!). Then, reading Karen’s post on Babel’s Odessa stories, reminded me of a reading plan I was failing to implement for years in a row now, a plan I named “Russian Winter”. Combining these two together led me to a decision to start my journey around the world by traveling through the former Soviet Union. I will not be far from Europe (again, to be precise, I will not be out of the Europe for the most part of this trip), but hey, it is the first step. Whether I’ll continue to West, East or South Asia remains to be seen. I have not made up my mind yet.

Here’s a rough reading plan for 2017:

  • a book (or two) from each of the former Soviet republics
  • some British women authors I haven’t read before (Brookner, Pym, Howard, Townsend Warner, Taylor, Drabble, Lively, Mortimer…)
  • some Shakespeare
  • some Ursula LeGuin
  • Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Life of Elves
  • a couple of books on Siberia
  • a couple of novels with “sea” in their title
  • several Plato’s dialogs

Happy New Year to all of us. May we be better and wiser!

reading · Virginia Woolf

How to read a book?

The Second Common Reader. Virginia Woolf

Reading has been a subject of interest for a long time now. From the process itself to habits one develops around it, from the choices of literature to the history of reading, its every aspect has a way of arousing my curiosity. If I feel overwhelmed by literature there’s almost one hundred percent certainty that I will reach for a book about reading.

I’ve been keen on rereading Woolf’s The Common Reader series and #Woolfalong, hosted by Ali, was the push I needed. As usual, though, I am late with the blog post.

I read both volumes almost ten years ago, but could not remember much. A wish to reacquaint with her way of reading was the reason I wanted to reread these books, especially The Second Common Reader, so I paid attention and kept extensive notes only to come to the final essay (How to read a book?) in which she actually sums it all up. That I could not remember much of these books was an understatement, it seems. I completely forgot about the existence of the aforementioned essay.

Well, at least I can find some solace and satisfaction in seeing that my notes caught the essence of her reading process with precision.

So, here it is:

  • take from each what it is right that each should give us” – fiction, biography, and poetry should be read differently
  • open your mind as widely as possible” so that it can pick up signs and hints, finesses of the book. ”Do not dictate to you author; try to become him.”
  • write, ”make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words” so you will better understand what the writer is doing
  • read biographies, letters, diaries to
    • see if a novel or a poem will read ”differently in the presence of the author
    • exercise our own creative powers
  • wait for the dust of reading to settle” – engage in some physical or social activity so the book will have time to take shape in your mind
  • compare, judge – the most difficult part of the reading process, a continually developing skill. ”To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating – that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails, here it succeeds; this is bad, this is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed;
  • turn to critics, ”to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art”. Keep in mind though that ”they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading.”
reading

Guarding my sanity

I remembered when, almost a year ago, I had a kind of a personal crisis where I kept asking myself why should I keep on reading and continually failed to get any satisfying answers (besides the joy the art of literature brings – which at that point was apparently not a reason good enough). I felt I had the knowledge of The World, the understanding of ‘it all’.., All stories, no matter how different, were basically one, long absorbed. Every character, no matter how ‘new’, seemed ancient and well-known. I felt I had nothing left to learn, nothing left to experience or understand, that reading, from then on, would be a pointless activity.

It was terrible. No matter how silly.

I didn’t want to feel like that. What would I do without the reading? – I’ve always thought it an essential part of my being. The feeling was shattering, but at the same time, I knew it was temporary.

Why am I mentioning this episode now? Because these days (‘months’ would be more precise but ‘days’ sounds better and hopeful), when I am working hard, when thoughts about what has been done and what is still to be done are constantly on my mind, I am being reminded of one of the roles that literature plays is my life – the role of the guardian of sanity.

The first time literature took this role was several years ago, after I started working as a tutor for a couple of primary school children.

These days, as I have said, I’ve been under a considerable amount of stress again. I needed, I was desperate for another narrative, a story that wasn’t my own. But, this time I had troubles finding a suitable book. I’ve read dozens of first pages. None clicked. I wondered what to do. I got a suspicion that my brain was being deliberately non-cooperative, that it set its default response to ‘negative’. It was not an option for me so I decided to try to engage my brain by choosing a book differently. It doesn’t need to click, I told myself. What I should do is pick some numbers, get a book from a shelf using those numbers and stick to it no matter the resistance.

I got Doctorow’s World Fair – a book I thought I would never read because it never appealed to me. (I am not sure why I have it in my library.)

It was hard – I struggled through the first twenty or thirty pages, but I endured and eventually got into the story.

life · reading

The Words

A couple of days ago, while browsing Twitter, I stumbled upon three books whose covers and titles got me immediately interested.

I won’t write about the covers. Nor about the titles themselves. But about the words in the titles.

I came to a realization that there are some dozen words to which I am unreservedly, invariably drawn to. They pull me like gravity.. Have I caught but a glimpse of one of these words in the title of some book I am immediately there, reaching for it, picking it up, without exception.

BOOK. SEA. ISLAND. WIND. WINTER. SNOW. DEATH. GARDEN. FOREST. NORTH. ICE. LAKE. MOON.

Writing these words down and seeing them one besides the other I get a strange feeling I can not exactly express. Because I am not sure I know what the feeling is.

I am looking at my affinity towards the coldness. This affinity is absolutely not a surprise – I have known about it, of course. Still, seeing it black on white is like looking at myself from the outside; which again, is not something new – I see myself this way very often, if not always. But, something is different. Like, these are the outlines of my being. A sketch of a character. I have no idea… I am just throwing the words out, therefore I will stop.

Also, thinking further about the words I am drawn to, I realized there are some names of the colors that would interest me in a title more than others – BLACK. BLUE. WHITE.

Then, I also have an inclination towards the names of certain months – NOVEMBER. MARCH. APRIL. MAY. It is highly unlikely I would feel compelled to immediately reach for a book with February in the title.

Then, certain animals – BEAR. WOLF. FOX. SERPENT. HEDGEHOG. WHALEEAGLE. SEAGULL. OWL. 

I definitely need to do some more thinking on this subject.

In any case, it was an interesting thought, fun to ponder.. and it would only be right to make a note of the books that inspired this little list. Looking very much forward to reading:

books

 

 

life · reading

Childhood

Children, in all of the books I loved and read countless times when I was a child, had two things in common. First – their own space. Second – a kind of a club or a fellowship…

Pippi was always a category of her own, of course – having a villa all to herself at all times (which was not that desirable at that age, I suppose, but still fun to think about). The rest of the heroes had what always attracted me: the possibility of living in their own worlds for at least a couple of hours a day – not only in their heads but in an actual place to which the access was, more or less, restricted… Jovanče and his friends (Eagles Fly Early) had a camp (and a cave!) in the woods, Boka and company (Paul Street Boys) had a forgotten construction site to play at, Pero and his friends (Pero Kvžica’s Gang) had the mill… It is true that all of them (except for Pippi, of course) lose their playgrounds in the end, but it is hardly the point.

The point is that they had it. They had a place where they could be on their own, where they could act by their own rules, a place they could shape as they wanted. This was very important.

I shared a room with my younger sister, but I would be telling a lie if I would say that the room was really ours – we were barely allowed to stick our drawings on the wall let alone re-imagine it as we wished… Not to mention that parents were able to find us in there any time they wanted to…

I tried ‘having’ some corners in the house but, as one can imagine, they were all too exposed. I longed for a tree house – that would’ve been perfect… I wished for an attic, like Joe (Little Women) had, but ours was dirty, full of roofing tile, tin sheet, timber, varnish, whitewash and whatnot, so there was no way of using it for my purposes… I remember I even tried making a large fridge carton box my second home.

What I also lacked was a group, a fellowship… My younger sister had zero interest in (almost) everything that interested me. Nevertheless, I never stopped struggling to get her into it all. (We still laugh about how I, trying and constantly failing to persuade her to read Eagles Fly Early, started reading it to her one night and she fell asleep.)…

I was eager to go investigating the front yard, as Pippi did, wanted to build a hut somewhere in the back yard – inspired by Jovanče and his classmates, and, more than any other thing in the whole wide world, I wanted to have a secret society, one just like the ‘Pickwick Club’ in Little Women… There was no one to have it with (the youngest sister was still a bit too young, although pretty enthusiastic), so I tried having it by myself. It wasn’t the same, of course… I started a newspaper. My sisters were also enjoying reading (some of) it, looking at the pictures, but felt no desire to really contribute. And I did not want to read my texts only, to only admire the drawings I made. I wanted to learn, to get something new, from someone else. Being the sole editor, author and artist soon became pointless and my newspaper shut after its third issue.

I still long for both my own space and the secret society.