Monday, February 3, 2014

been reading some more... and thinking about reading too

Having read four-and-a-bit books so far this year, I've already read nearly half as many as I did in 2013.  Good going, no?  As well as being a (relative) success in terms of quantity, my 2014 reading experience has been a great success in terms of quality as I've really enjoyed all four books I've read so far.

I thought The Ballad Of Trenchmouth Taggart might be a bit macho for me (I did get a bit lost in the shoot-em-up parts, to be honest) but I ended up being completely engrossed by it.  It tells the story of a pretty remarkable West Virginian from his birth at the end of the 19th century to his death at the end of the 20th.  I usually hate it when books set in the olden days (I mean that to be vague) try to bring the story into modern times, like Birdsong*, for example, but in this book it actually worked really well.  It added to the sense of the epic, I thought, and the central character was strong enough and the setting alien enough to pull it off.  There wasn't a sense of the protagonist having changed, looking back on their previous existence, it was all one continuous story.  Plus the book was full of bad breath, blood and guts and juicy language.  Possibly my favourite description was the twice-repeated, "This place stinks of assholes and oregano."  (That may be a slight misquote as I do it from memory, but the "assholes and oregano" part is definitely correct.)  There were also lots of interesting historical details.  I learned that early Model Ts had a poorly designed engine, so that the petrol supply was cut off if the car was driven up a hill beyond a certain incline.  This led to exciting scenes of high-speed getaways driven in reverse.  I guess I ended up enjoying the macho side of the book too!

I suppose I've just cited a character not overtly reflecting on their youth/past as a good thing, but that's really the whole premise of The Sense Of An Ending and it was what I liked about the book, what I like about many other books, in fact.  (I think I probably only dislike it when the narrative is in the present tense throughout the book, if a narrative is backwards-looking from the outset, it becomes a good thing.)  I've read and enjoyed Julian Barnes before, especially Arthur And George, but this book in particular ticked quite a few of my boxes - short, easy to read, plenty to think about.  I like that in a book.  And I do like introspection, especially if it comes from men of middle age to advancing years.  But hey, this won the Booker Prize, so I'm not sure what I can really add to further recommend it.

I recently read Mariella Frostrup's problem page in The Observer.  A woman had written in complaining that she was over-sensitive and took life too seriously, couldn't handle criticism and that it was affecting her relationships.  She had tried meditation and reading up on psychology, but was finding it hard to toughen up, roll with the punches and take life lightly.  Mariella's advice was surprising to me.  She advised reading fiction.  Hmm, interesting.  I'll give you a lengthy quote from her reply, but you can read the full article here.

"You say you've read psychology books in your pursuit of emotional equilibrium, can I suggest you turn to fiction instead?
"Understanding what makes other people behave the way they do can help minimise the impact their actions have on you. I've learned as much about the world from made-up stories about it as I have by living in it. Through great novels you can better understand everything from a stranger's suicidal impulse to the far-reaching effect of the Holocaust on the descendants of survivors.
"I'd recommend The Grass is Singing, by the late great Doris Lessing, anything at all by Alice Munro, the heart-wrenching Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels and perhaps Dirt Music by Tim Winton. The best fiction strikes at our heart, reminding us that we are flawed and fabulous, unique and much the same as everyone else, and that ultimately our duty is to live well and leave a residue of goodness with those we love, not squander time fretting about the perceptions and slights of others.
"Putting irrational issues in proportion by increasing your empathy and broadening your horizons is the best way possible to reduce their power to diminish you and stop you living bravely. You won't look back."
Setting aside the issue of whether we should give much credence to the opinion of the presenter of The Box (who am I to judge?!) I think this stance is really interesting, though I can't decide whether I really agree with it.  You see, I think I have developed a lot of my opinions and understanding of the world and people through what I've read, but I've never been too sure how useful/valid this has been.  
From my teenage years to the present day, I have enjoyed reading books told from the viewpoint of a man (usually) of above-average intelligence.  I also like books that reference philosophy quite directly, as in The Sense Of An Ending.  Tony, the book's narrator, is presented as being kind of external to genuine philosophical thought.  He admires Adrian's intelligence and rides on its coat-tails to some degree.  He has all the right books on his shelves, but hasn't read them all and doesn't feel they represent a sense of himself as his girlfriend's (often less intellectual) books do.  He is flawed.  Aren't we all?  But, ultimately, Tony is a narrator and so has to be insightful and intelligent to some degree in order to make the book worth reading, even if his insight really extends to becoming aware of his own failings.  
I feel, as a reader, that I'm always one step even further removed.  While reading this book, for example, I look to Tony the way Tony looks to Adrian, and I've read and understood even less than he has.  I'm spending a lot of time reading books about people who seem far removed from me and what I know.  In general, the things I like to read about in fiction (e.g. philosophy) I don't really understand or know much about, which I know sounds strange given that I have a first-class degree in the subject, but still...  And nobody would ever write a book where someone like me was the central figure, much less the narrator, because... Well, it just wouldn't make for great reading.  
Also, most people I know (who do tend to be better than me at relating to others and rolling with life's punches) seem to form their view of the world and other people from, you guessed it, the world and other people.  So should I be surprised that they seem to do better at it when I'm forming my grounding in books about things that don't really apply to me, if that is what I'm doing?
So what is it, if not real life, that I'd be developing an understanding of through reading?  I do like the way intelligent books enable me think about bigger questions (life, death, morality, the usual sort of stuff!) and give me a borrowed language to form my thoughts in, making them sound more cohesive than they really are, but I'm not sure that reading books improves my ability to engage with real-life people and handle real-life situations.  The "real lives" I'm reading about are not really relevant to my own real life, I suppose.  They definitely don't seem relevant to the real lives I see others living.  But maybe that's just because reading is quite an introspective/private activity, reflecting the less obvious/less visible sides of all our personalities.  
I suppose Mariella's point is that a well-written book gives us access to the workings of other people's minds in the way that day-to-day communication doesn't and reminds us that our philosophical trundlings (the things we normal-intelligence types can't fully communicate to others but might spend lots of time dwelling on) are not unique to us.  I remember reading a quote from Virginia Woolf (was it in The Waves maybe?) that the closest we can come to communicating with another person is scratching on the wall of our neighbouring cell.  I read that over a decade ago and it really rang true with me.  I guess reading is important because it can seem to overcome that divide, but if that doesn't translate into the real world, then what is the point?  Or maybe it doesn't matter at all that I'm not a great conversationalist.  Is it enough to feel empathy for others and believe we are all thinking along the same lines if you're not able to demonstrate that?
Oh, jeezo, is my aim to read more actually a massive waste of time?  Or is all this navel gazing as valid a use of life as chatting about our days in a scritch-scratch separated sort of a way?
My head hurts, maybe in a good way.
* Hey!  I just realised I read Birdsong in 2013 too, but must have forgotten to add it to my list, bringing my total to a slightly more respectable 11.  Yay!

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