Dispatches | November 22, 2010

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, we are actually reading novels!  Okay, snarkiness aside, novels are on the brain right now.  I recently finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel – maybe you heard of it somewhere – and started reading an older book called The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley.  Hartley’s novel is okay; it’s one of those reissued doohickeys from the New York Review of Books Classics and I want to like it more than I do because it is touching on some thematic elements that I’m working on with my own writing.  But for whatever reason, I haven’t really been able to stay with the book, and I’ve been “reading” it for five weeks.

Which isn’t really true: I don’t think I’ve cracked the pages open in close to ten days.  When I pick it up, I’m pretty clear on where I am and what’s going on and all that, but whatever momentum I feel for the book is lost.  Is the book failing, or am I failing as a reader?

Two thoughts jump starting this one.  Here goes.  The first is from Alexander Chee, paraphrased by TMR pal Karen Gentry:

If you read in a fragmented way–3 or 4 books at any one time–then you’ll likely write that way too–fragmented. He wasn’t knocking fragmented writing, just pointing it out. That got me thinking.

It got me thinking too and I’ve been trying ever since to read less fragmented.  As Karen pointed out, fragmented reading isn’t good or bad inherently.  But if I even stick with one novel at home, what about all the reading I do throughout the day?

Thought number two is courtesy of Philip Roth.  You might have heard of him.  He’s kind of a big deal.  From his video interview with The Daily Beast:

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.

Roth’s point on concentrating is an interesting one.  The best readers I know (whatever that means) read prolifically and attentively, and I’ve always thought that was difficult to do: how can a person rush thorough a book like that?  But I wonder if it isn’t being rushed so much as it’s being completely immersed.  That’s happened to me recently: while Franzen’s book was one I picked up and put down over the course of a month, I recently read Inman Major’s novel “The Millionaires” in about four days.  Couldn’t put it down, as the kids say.

Is this the responsibility of the author?  Or of me as the reader?

As with most things, of course, it isn’t as clean cut, as black and white, good or bad, as the either/or choice makes it seem.  Some books pull me in and others don’t.

This weekend, I posted up at Coffee Zone, a spot in downtown CoMo that has a Turkish café vibe, with the sad exception of the massive flat screen TV in the back.  I took a table underneath the screen so I couldn’t look up and be bombarded with Headline News, and started reading The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, a Swedish writer that I had truthfully never heard of.  The book had been on my shelf for a long time – I’m actually not quite sure where I got the book from; I have no memory of buying it – and for whatever reason, I was in the mood for something dystopian.  In the novel, women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 60—single, childless, and not working in progressive industries—are transferred to so-called reserve bank units where they live in complete physical comfort, while giving up their bodies and minds to drug experimentation and organ donation, until they are no long needed.  They are “disposable.”  It’s a chilling novel, and the prose has this subtle elegance of controlled terror all throughout the narrative, a constant sense of unease with the world Dorrit, our narrator, perceives.

I read about 100 pages on Saturday.  I didn’t blow through it.  I didn’t rush.  I had my bottomless cup of coffee, and time, and when I looked up, I could see out the windows of the café and watch the world darken from a bright gray afternoon to night.  This wasn’t effortless.  Ignoring the television, the café noise (strangely, it’s often harder for me to concentrate in the quiet of home), not bringing a computer or listening to music, shutting down my brain’s efforts to think about all the other things that take up my mental energy: this is taxing, something that has gotten harder and harder to do, as previously noted here and here.

Reading can be a pleasure; getting into reading is, actually, quite hard, and seems to get harder every year.  Despite the ease with which we can follow a link and bounce in and out of a webpage, I actually find it very difficult to give up on a book, even ones I don’t like.  I can do it; there are books I’ve been so disgusted with that I’ve literally thrown them across the room (you should do this at least once: it’s actually quite fun!) but for the most part, I plod through a book I’m lukewarm on, refusing to quite, sympathizing with the author, that poor soul, and knuckle down to figure out what I’m missing from the book, what’s going on here that I should absolute pay more attention to, should understand.

I accept that there is a heavy responsibility on my part to be an attentive reader.  On the flipside, as a writer, I know that there is also a responsibility to engage that reader, whoever he or she is, and hold their attention.  This is might be more important than ever.  A common complaint about contemporary literature is that the first chapter, sometimes the first 100 pages, are so incredibly good, but the rest of the book is remarkably mediocre, if not outright bad.  And the reasons why are probably pretty easy to tag: workshops that address twenty pages at a time; mailing the first pages to agents; viewing the book as part of a platform for a brand; and probably others that I’m not particularly interested in exhausting here.

What I am interested in is the books that do hold me, and why that is the case.  Here are some of the books that engaged me this year: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, The Millionaires by Inman Majors, The Report by Jessica Kane, Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett, A Separate Peace by John Knowles (as I discussed here), and, of course, The Unit.  Is there something these books have in common?

The best that I can come up with – and this isn’t going to be very good – is that in their first chapters, good novels posit a question, or a series of questions, and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure that question out.  This isn’t anything about plot or character or prose; then again, who’s to say this isn’t entirely about an interesting character or an intricate plot?  Whatever it is, the author is generally interested in exploring something, whatever that something is, and, weirdly, isn’t really interested in answering the question so much as exploring the question.  What is evil?  What is memory?  Why, and how, is our culture bankrupt?  Why, despite all the reasons we have not to, do we love and trust others?

Just maybe that last question is closer to the answer than I realize: a relationship that is based on choice.  One might argue we don’t choose who we love; I disagree.  I’ll go ahead and just leap over all the implications of that last sentence, skipping the tangents, and make a quick comparison between a book’s author and the book’s reader.  Why does it work?  I have absolutely no idea.  If you really think about it, it’s absurd, isn’t it?  A writer hunches over a keyboard and works for five years, and lo and behold, there you are, months or years later, holding it in your hands, slumped on your couch, reading this person’s novel and, somehow, it works.

I mean, really stop and think about it for a moment.  Isn’t that sort of amazing?

If you read fast, fragmented, deep, slow, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that what you are experiencing is engaging and memorable.  We don’t read the same books, don’t like the same books, and never will.  I will not ever read every single “important” book.  That’s okay. What’s not okay is spending my time on the books that don’t work for me.  And when that happens, there’s nothing wrong with letting go.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

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