I spent a lot of time thinking yesterday about reading and books and whys and wherefores. Too much time, probably. It started with my post about The Savage Detectives, but carried through as I was reading other blogs, as I tried to work out what I really meant when I posted on my Savage Detectives experience, and what I mean when I talk about the way I read or respond to books.
I almost feel like I need to post a disclaimer: “Blog poster may or may not agree with what she has written here and elsewhere now, yesterday, or tomorrow,” which makes me sound really wishy-washy, but which sometimes seems 100% accurate. It’s not that I’m indecisive, but I have a terrible habit of typing or speaking without thinking through what I’m saying or mean, thus leaving behind an inaccurate picture of the sum of my thoughts. Further, I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts. I don’t always see in black and white; everything is nuanced. Sometimes there are subtle shade of meaning or difference: I agree with you (myself) in this case but not that, sometimes my ideas and conceptions transform as time passes. And I sometimes see in black and white; some things just are. But it’s all a process, I’m always searching, and I’m sure I sometimes sound like I’m not, like I’ve made up my mind, but I haven’t. Or rather, I’ve made up my mind about some things but not others: books, for instance–I’m not wishy-washy when it comes to my opinion on a given book. The way to approach books, to understand them, to talk about them–that I don’t know yet.
I return to my theme from yesterday: I know how to approach a book emotionally, but how do I quantify it? I called emotional criteria “bad criteria” but this isn’t fair, it isn’t what I really meant. That is, I don’t mean that I disparage emotional responses, hardly–all my best-loved books are emotional responses. No, I mean I don’t know how to explain emotional criteria, not always. I can say I loved Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm because Rebecca charmed me, but I can’t explain my reaction to The Savage Detectives, why it hit me like a ton of bricks, why I simply knew it was good, why I couldn’t understand that at the 200 page mark, but I could at the 500 page mark.
Jillian had a thought-provoking post yesterday about reviewing vs. personal responses to books, right-brains vs. left-brains, how these types think differently, analyze differently, and I’m afraid I left a completely meaningless response, but it triggered more thinking, more thoughts. About all the different ways to respond to literature, why we all respond differently, why there are so many different ways to respond. Thoughts, ideas, that are all half-formed, but that pointed to two truths: 1) I am always searching and 2) I can see both sides of the puzzle: the emotional response, the analytical response.
I’d like to find the balance where I can both say “I loved this book” (for intangible reasons) AND “this is why this book is good/great” (tangible reasons). The emotional response is easy, it is natural. But the analytical response, this is not easy, it requires thought, it requires work.
I read a lot, all sorts of different things. Much of it is never discussed here, as I usually reserve this space for books, and much of what I read are articles. Economic news, political news, environmental news, building news, opinion pieces, arts pieces, movie pieces, run-of-the-mill new, all sorts. They inform, they educate. I read books, most of which are discussed here. Some are classics, some non-fiction, some fluffy light-weights. But this year, so far, most of my reading has been outstanding. And I’m reminded how much I like the “difficult” books.
The truth is, not all books are equal. Some are just plain better than others. These are usually the sorts that make the lists. But how we define what is great, what is good, what is a classic, that is a mystery. We can’t really predict, not truly, what will endure. My own experience leads me to agree that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) These “great” books, these classics–they’re the ones that don’t let me go, that I can’t escape. Returning to them with gusto this year–and reading one or two that aren’t–I remember why I prefer them. It is a response both emotional and eventually, as I learn, analytical. It is critical. It is visceral.
And this takes me back to the early days of this blog.
Way, way back, before anyone really read this, I proposed for myself a goal of searching out the greats, of trying to learn why they are so classified, what elements make them great or best. It was an analytical goal. But I’m learning that it is an emotional goal as well. It’s one I’ve neglected, but as I find myself returning to the best books, I find I don’t want to abandon it again; these are too good, too powerful to ignore. I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions. And quite honestly, I can’t find this with the lesser books.
This is why I read, why I read the great books. I’d just forgotten it for a while.