Wednesday, March 25, 2015

`To Be Somewhere Else'

Asked by an interviewer whether he ever felt “the need to be at the centre of things,” Philip Larkin replied “Oh no, I feel very much the need to be on the periphery of things.” Reflexively contrary Larkin? I suppose, but a writer (or reader) feels no need to be at the center of anything except his own closely observed little kingdom, somewhere in the provinces, never in the capital. The center, after all, cannot hold. Out here, it’s quiet, at least most of the time, unignorable distractions are fewer, and a guy has no trouble concentrating while he lets his imagination wander. One cannot write, or read, in a crowd, and things get crowded at the center. A new reader of Anecdotal Evidence in my home state of Ohio, picking up on a suggestion from L.E. Sissman, writes:  

“I have been a rereader all my life.  When I read a good book when I was 6 or 7 I immediately turned it over and started the first of many re-reads.  I still judge books by whether I think they are worth rereading.  I also have found myself out of tune with most contemporary literature and the most excited and exciting reviews in the NY Times Book Review have led me to read books that were a waste of time.” 

Spoken like a true periphery-dweller. My reader goes on to say she read “broadly” until the age of undeniable youthlessness – that is, forty -- then focused on “those authors who most impressed me.” Readerly pressures when we’re young are generally external, whether from parents, peers, teachers or critics. One wishes to appear up-to-date and make no faux pas of fashion. You also feel the need to orient yourself: Who wrote what and when? Who read whom and why? Literature takes on a narrative of its own, a vast web of connections, overt and otherwise. With time, being hip, earning the tastemaker’s seal of approval, grows tiresome. In short, you learn to read for pleasure, which is one of the reasons you started reading in the first place. By now you know what’s crap and what’s gold, and the essence of true criticism can be reduced to this gem by J.V. Cunningham: “It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.” One seeks an amenable otherness in writers, not carbon copies of pre-masticated orthodoxies. Guy Davenport says it was while reading Jules Verne, of all people, that he came to this conclusion, in “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996): 

“I had never before felt how lucky and privileged I am, not so much for being literate, a state of grace that might in different circumstances be squandered on tax forms or law books, but for being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

"One seeks an amenable otherness in writers, not carbon copies of pre-masticated orthodoxies." Lovely sentence from you Mr Kurp.