Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Reading

In today’s New York Times, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg raises the essential question every avid reader faces, for some inexplicable reason, the moment school ends and blockbusters fill the multiplexes: what to read. He answers it in characteristic Klinkenborg fashion—thoughtfully, without sure conclusion, but with insights that are as true as they seem familiar. Here is what he says about choosing the last book of the summer.
The book I want is a vortex. When I lower my eyes to it, I’m sucked deep into a place more plausible than the one that surrounds me. When I look up, I want the actual life around me to look strange and original, like a brand new page in a pop-up world.

This is asking an awful lot of a book, I know. Or it would be, if readers weren’t such willing collaborators, if we weren’t so susceptible to the power of suggestion. And yet there’s a practical, skeptical vein in most of us, too — even when seeking an August escape. There’s no such thing, for instance, as a placebo book. All the recommendations of friends and critics will carry us only so far. Ultimately, a book has to meet the test of our own experience, which is a reminder of just how much we live books out as we read them.

Nothing “about” a book can tell you whether this will be true love. Only the book itself can say. For the first few pages, my reading feels provisional, probing, just as it always does. But soon that feeling dissipates. The traces of uncertainty vanish. So, somehow, does the ink on the page, and I realize that I’m looking through the book as if it were translucent. This remains, after a lifetime of reading, a mystery and a joy.

“How much we live books out as we read them.” Indeed. This is why the choice of what to read during this slowed-down time of summer is so important—because we’ll remember those books long after we’ll remember a book we read, say, in October. We’ll remember those books in a different way, too. Not just as stories we liked or were disappointed by, but as lives that became woven in with our own—events that colored our thinking in the way that a dream can affect our moods long after we wake up.

One summer, my studies required me to read the collected works of Charles Dickens and a handful of other Victorian writers. I began with Dickens in June, certain I would hate him and determined to get the worst over with. The Brontës would be my reward in August. Something tells me I began not with The Pickwick Papers (because if I had, I would have been tempted not to continue), but with Oliver Twist, next in the chronology. I read every evening after work and virtually all day on Saturdays and Sundays, managing to finish a 900-page Penguin Classic each week (I was then, and remain, a slow reader), going through the familiar Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby; gagging on the maudlin Old Curiosity Shop; thankful for Sairey Gamp who showed up to brighten the otherwise dry Martin Chuzzlewit; and marveling at the four great novels that came almost in straight succession: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. A more sustained reverie on the darkness of human nature—and the comedy that survives it—doesn’t exist, in my opinion, in English literature. Decades later, that reading of Dickens remains my most treasured reading experience. The fact that it occurred in summer is, I think, no coincidence.

By the time I reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood, sometime at the end of July, I was distraught. The world I had lived in for ten or so weeks was shutting down, closing its doors, and leaving me on the wrong side. I remember that time in my life vividly—the rattan chair I sat in for all my reading, the gypsy moths outside chomping the leaves that year, my absent-mindedness as I went to work after a night of Sairey Gamp putting drinks on her “manklepidge” or Flora Casby mincing about her drawing room or Bradley Headstone and his spontaneous nose-bleed. What happened then, and what happens with some regularity with most books I read, is what Klinkenborg describes as the disappearance of the ink on the page. He’s absolutely right: it’s that experience of “looking through the book as if it were translucent”. It is, as he says, a mystery and a joy.

My Bleak House, however, and my Little Dorrit are now a little less translucent than they used to be. So are my Atonement and my Sense and Sensibility, thanks to their film or television adaptations. Dorrit was slimmer before I saw Matthew McFayden; I always saw Jo’s street crossing from the other side of the street. Even in cases where the casting gets the character’s looks right—as is the case, I think, with Gillian Anderson’s Lady Dedlock who looks just like George Cruikshank’s Victorian illustrations—the movie image is just too overpowering, too vivid.

I suppose I could have refused to watch when these novels turned up on the screen, or on PBS via the BBC. But like many of us, I couldn’t resist another chance to inhabit the world I knew so well. It’s a small-scale Faustian bargain, though: hand the man your ticket, but the place you’re going to will never be the same. Or, more accurately, it’s Eurydice and Orpheus: look back one more time, and you lose the ability to inhabit that world without reservation or limit.

Am I making too much of this? Of course. It’s not life and death, after all. But it’s narrative, and that is a very powerful thing. The good news is that we have it better than Eurydice. We can pull the book down from the shelf and—as long as it doesn’t have the movie-tie-in cover—sink back into the fictional world as we first and then again and again imagined it. Our pictures of the books we read don’t stay the same, after all. They change with us, from one reading, one summer, to the next.


  1. Nice post on how reading affects living. I also love the "vortex" quote. Thanks!

  2. Yes, Klinkenborg's vortex is a nice image, capturing the at-first tentative and then headlong absorption into a book that he goes on to describe.

  3. Wonderful when that suspension of disbelief keeps happening no matter how many times you re-read or how much older you become. Dickens doesn't work for me, but Mr Darcy's proposal has been taking me by surprise for the last thirty years.