Wednesday, August 14, 2019

'Experience and Reflection, Set Down in Language'

Over the weekend I began reading a book I read for the first time in 1974. Apart from a generalized sense of having enjoyed and admired it, while retaining an uncertain grasp of the story, I might as well have been reading Allen Tate’s only novel, The Fathers (1938), for the first time. What do we mean when we say we “know” a book? If fiction, does it mean we remember the plot? The names of characters? If we dutifully read The Return of the Native in eighth grade, and that was more than half a century ago, can we honestly say we know Hardy’s novel? I can’t.

I’ve never thought of reading as an obligation. Nor have I ever made a list of books to read and proceeded to check them off. I like to learn things from what I read (as did Guy Davenport), but I don’t confuse reading with “self-improvement.” I don’t like to be lectured or preached at, in print or otherwise. When I read I don’t grow self-reflective and watch myself reading. That seems unhealthy. Good books, after all, are meant to foster self-forgetting. I favor books that use language in interesting ways. If I pause while reading, it’s to savor a passage or try to figure out one that confuses me. I’m a slow but relentless reader, not easily distracted if I’m enjoying myself. I’m a little ashamed to recall that I’ve spent a good portion of my life reading books I can no longer remember. I do remember reading the early novels of Thomas McGuane but I couldn’t tell you a thing about them.

There are exceptions. I’ve read Ulysses often enough, especially when young, to “know” it in vivid detail. I added another layer of annotation each time I read Joyce’s novel, a practice that no longer interests me. I know some novels by Henry James, Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov comparably well. Book memories blend promiscuously with life memories. A writer new to me, Alice Whaley, recently wrote in a publication new to me, The Oldie: 

“Accumulating circulations around the sun doesn’t make you wise. Experience and reflection does. Nothing can beat the real thing, but what is Literature, if not experience and reflection, set down in language?”

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