Books and Their Clandestine Pleasures
March 31, 2012 § 3 Comments
Talking about books is easy — you just follow the models of the form. Most book reviews converse in a professional idiom, of whether a book is more like Cormac McCarthy or more like Michael Chabon, of what modern-day themes it expresses or what are its ties to current events, of its conflict or its arc or its redemption or its sympathies. Schools have a similar expedient way of looking at books: as moral machines that work a certain way. Agents and publishers and other literary business types have their own set of values: what does the protagonist want, and what makes the reader care about them and turn the page? The personal conversations I’ve had about books — whatever that tiny body of data is worth — were generally some amalgam of these approaches.
But this isn’t how people enjoy books, is it? I can’t be sure. But it’s certainly not how I enjoy them. It’s hard to imagine a reader — though I’ll do my best: in bed Sunday morning, the sheets tossed back, lotus position, sweatpants, her hair done up just enough to keep it out of her eyes — turning a page and sighing to herself, “Yes, yes it’s a perfect parallel to the moral underpinnings of the financial crisis!” That’s the kind of idea and the kind of “appreciation” that’s thought up as a rationalization after the fact, long after the real experience of the book has faded from memory and it’s time to sum up the book for an article.
I bet you don’t read books the way reviewers write about them, the way teachers teach them, and the way literary professionals advise about them. They don’t read them that way, either. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they, and you and I, read them for fun.
The problem here is that there’s a disconnect between the ways people read books (which are as varied and strange as people themselves) and the standardized ways people talk about them. Ulysses, for example, garners a lot of flak (and publicity and prestige and name-dropping) as a difficult modernist tome. Just try to imagine for a second — what’s it like to read a difficult modernist tome? Does your brain hear the words any differently from a pre-modernist book, or assemble their images any differently? The vast majority of what I’ve heard and read about Ulysses has nothing to do with the mysteries and pleasures of reading it, and more to do with its reputation. The professional assessment of the book has replaced any talk of its contents.
Here’s what I like about Ulysses: I like the part where the protagonist obliviously tips off a passing acquaintance about a racehorse named “Throwaway”, and how all through the book that racing tip, and its winners and losers, keep reappearing. I also like how the texture of the tenth chapter (“Wandering Rocks”, which follows various roving characters through the streets) heightens the luridness and absurdity of the snatches Bloom steals from the romance novels he pages through (“All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns…Her mouth glued on his in a luscious voluptuous kiss.”)
Things I don’t like: the book’s modernist significance. Its Hellenic symbolism. Its convenience as a cultural touchstone. Its “importance” of any kind. Not that I dislike these necessarily — I just don’t care.
And why should I? Why should anyone care why a book’s important or relevant? It’s an act of flagellation really, that we go around telling ourselves and others of the importance of great books, when we could be talking about their greatness instead.
The problem is, when Ulysses comes up at a cocktail party, what chance is there to talk about the tempo of snatches of romance novels in some particular unimportant scene? First off, many of the people talking about the book probably haven’t read it. Second, you can probably imagine that such an impression, and such a pleasure, doesn’t translate well into conversation.
Tragically, the greatest pleasures of reading — the sensuous surprises of a scene, or an illuminating frivolity, or an exchange between characters laden with only the most delicate of their motivations — are commonly incommunicable. You could go your whole life without having a chance to share them with an appreciative audience. So people talk about books in the only expedient way they can: via their generalities.
There’s a bright side to all this hopelessly furtive pleasure, though. To someone who’s spent his or her whole life reading, exploring great books, building up his or her sensitivities without even realizing it, only to find now and then a momentary realization of sheer bliss in the turn of an image or in the disclosure of a vivid detail of a character — each of those moments is yours forever, indelible, tender, permanent. Nothing can ever, ever take away from you the secret understanding of a passing detail of an author’s genius, when your imagination disclosed to you a strange beauty you and an author share, in secret, forever.