“It is part of the alchemy of books that the written word rewrites
itself on the reader and that one thing becomes another as it passes
through various states of change while remaining itself. Don’t tell me
that books are not mysterious – they are.” –Jeanette Winterson
Last night, I settled into bed around eleven o’clock with the novel I started reading over the weekend. It wasn’t long before I realized my apartment had a curious sense of presence– as if something were in the apartment apart from me and my dog. On cue, Baxter started to bark in the other room. Starting to get a little freaked, I got out of bed, put on my slippers, and cautiously opened the bedroom door. I caught a glimpse of movement across the room and jumped out of my skin, then realized I was seeing my own reflection in the mirror hanging on the bathroom door, which I had left open. Baxter barked again. I told him to calm down and go to sleep (trying to convince myself of the same thing). I went back to my bedroom, shut the door firmly behind me, climbed into bed, and slipped back into my book. I read for another half hour or so and then, putting the closed book on my nightstand, quickly turned out the light and pulled the covers over my head. If they can’t see me, I thought, the same thought I’ve had since childhood, falling asleep under similar circumstances, they can’t get me.
All that because I’m reading a book about vampires! The opening chapters of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, lay the groundwork for the plot in teasing, thrilling chapters that so far include mysterious appearances and disappearances, and a father who is too terrified to recount the story of his encounters with Dracula to his daughter and so can only do it in short increments. The text is aware of its place in the scaffolding of the Dracula myth, from the fifteenth century to the present day, but it is no less unsettling for this acknowledgment.
This kind of terror is what Jeanette Winterson alludes to in her recent article in the Times. In this essay, she observes that there are far too many books being published these days for anyone to read all of them, and indeed, quite few that are worth reading. How is one to cut a swathe through the literary bracken? The only real way to read, Winterson writes, is to “follow [your] eccentricities,” wherever they may take you. For example, here’s where Winterson says her own eccentricities have recently led:
I have just been reading Captain Cook’s
Journals, which made me read
Robinson Crusoe again, which made me think about island
narratives, and has run me towards Boswell and Johnson in the Hebrides,
Marianne Wiggins’s wonderful novel
John Dollar and to Diana Souhami’s award-winning
Selkirk’s Island, which made me order
Coconut Chaos, her new book on Pitcairn.
Isn’t reading fun?
However, I have to disagree with her on one point: her outright dismissal of books on how or what to read, likening them to the “menu turistico beloved of nervous holidaymakers in foreign parts.” I take issue with this statement on several levels.
In the first place, my eccentricities have led me to the work of Alberto Manguel. Here’s how: While perusing in my local Barnes and Noble years ago, I came upon a paperback with an alluring name: The Mark of the Angel. I read the back cover and found it took place in Paris. Sold. An intellectual fascination (and something more, something more personal) with Nancy Huston was born. Last fall, hearing Huston would be on a panel at Festival America with Margaret Atwood and Edmund White (whose book on Paris I decidedly did not appreciate), I took my little self out to Vincennes to hear her. And there beside her was a deeply philosophical Argentinian-Canadian, whose comments and works mark him as the heir to Borges and Benjamin. “Je ne construis pas la vie sans lecture,” he said; when we read, the book becomes part of our “bibliothèque intérieure.”
It’s true: if you want to know who someone is, you can tell a lot from the books they own. And I don’t mean this as an elitist judgment– it’s not to say that people who don’t keep books aren’t interesting people, or that people who buy and read chick lit aren’t intelligent, but that much can be gleaned about that person’s relationship to their mind and to ideas from their bookshelves.
After the panel, I went to the book tent, where I bought Une histoire de la lecture(1996) and La Bibliothèque, la nuit (2006) as well as a short work on Borges and added them to my “to read” pile at home. (Manguel also has a book called A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflection on a Year of Books(2004) that I’m hoping to add to my library.)
A few months later, they’re still in my “to read” pile; I’m thinking I may get to them in April or perhaps over the summer. Because I’m so interested in Manguel’s understanding of literature, and the alchemical process of reading, this provides a
good reason for me to read his reading diary. If I respect a writer,
such as Manguel, Winterson, Huston, then I will be interested to know
what I can learn from their reading habits and journals that could in turn help my own reading and enlarge my understanding of literature and the world we inhabit. And I’m sure that Manguel will lead me other places, to writers I haven’t read, or to consider those I have in a different light. [Speaking of world we inhabit, Manguel now lives in a farmhouse in Poitou-Charentes. I wonder how I might angle for an invitation...]
I suspect, however, that Winterson was not alluding to works like those of Manguel, but perhaps to something like How to Read a Poem, by Terry Eagleton (2006), Catching Life by the Throat: How to Read Poetry and Why, by Josephine Hart (2006) , How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom (2001), or So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson (2004), which best seems to prove Winterson’s point: if there are so many books to read and not enough time to read them, why spend time reading about Nelson reading?
Which brings me to my second point, which will consider why we should in fact read Eagleton and Nelson on reading. But I’ve gone on long enough for now; that’s a post for another day. To be continued…