Monday, July 18, 2011
Reading, and other extreme sports
Let me see if I can diminish my shame, and compare reading with sky-diving, say, or surfing the glassy waves in Tahiti. I think they have a lot in common. Don’t belittle reading just because it’s so much more accessible. OK, you snob, belittle it if you must. I think we’re looking here at adventure, a complex of things that we value, including skill, danger, glamour, investment, exposure, physicality. Let’s examine these things.
I’ll grant you that reading lacks physicality. That’s the thing I most dislike about it, actually, or possibly the thing I most dislike in myself when I’m reading. I like to lie on my bed, propped on pillows, so comfortable that I tend to doze off. But whilst I’m still attentive, I grudge the effort to hold up my heavy book or awkward Kindle reader. (The page-turning buttons are positioned exactly where you would like to hold the thing whilst lying on your back.) Better, I think, to have the words projected on the ceiling. But then I would have to keep my eyes open: even that is too much effort for perfect comfort. There are audio books which exist to cater for such lazy inertia, but I don’t like them. Paradoxically, they also cater for the fitness freak. In principle, you could sky-dive with your earphones plugged in tight, listening to an actor reading Silas Marner. It would be an abomination, of course. The one adventure would numb and nullify the other. Those joggers and cyclists who entertain themselves with audio books clearly find their self-propulsion through space an insufficient adventure. I’m sorry for them.
Is reading dangerous? According to my mother, reading in dim light would “hurt your eyes”, but mine still work fine sixty years later. Censors, religious or secular, have always taken the view that reading the wrong thing is risky like visiting a brothel: you might pick up some spiritual disease. There was a time when reading Karl Marx might shorten your life, if it inspired you to take up arms as a revolutionary. It used to be thought that for children at least, certain “literature”, in its broadest sense, was dangerous. Nowadays parents are more concerned with the dangers of their children not reading. “Parental guidance” is reserved for images, moving or still. To sum up, we compare estimates and conclude that the dangers of reading compared with sky-diving are marginal, or controversial. I conduct an imaginary poll and discover that most people think reading is less of a sport than chess, though more dangerous to the persons involved. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses warn about the dangers of chess. (Source: Awake magazine, 1973.)
One thing that’s noncontroversial is exposure. Almost by definition, an extreme sport is one in which spectators are watching for the chance that you might fail—get injured or die. There are dangerous sports where no one can watch. Caving is a good example: it’s dangerous precisely because you’re on your own. Reading is obviously different. If you don’t want people to see what you’re reading on the bus or Tube, you can conceal its cover. Only the book reviewer experiences the thrill and danger of exposure. He’s a special kind of reader who exposes himself for money, or to duel for credibility with the author. I often feel the urge to publish a review of the book I’m reading, but it tends to be homage, rather than a critical guide; and the urge invariably fades before I’m halfway through. In the matter of exposure, reading is not in the league with motor-racing or sky-diving. There’s seldom blood or broken bones.
Let’s move on swiftly and deal with skill, investment and glamour. If you embark on Proust, Finnegan’s Wake or Homer, you may discover it’s like running a Marathon, testing your fitness and stamina. I don’t read to prove myself, not any more; but to harvest a gift still fresh and ripe even though the author who left it for me may be long gone.
I’ll confess that this essay was inspired by John Updike’s short story, “Museums and Women”, first published in The New Yorker, 1967. It’s a set of linked anecdotes, each of which involves a museum visit and a woman, starting with his mother. He’s fascinated by a collection of small bronze nudes:
They were in their smallness like secret thoughts of mine projected into dimension and permanence, and they returned to me as a response that carried strangely into parts of my body. I felt myself a furtive animal stirring in the shadow of my mother.
My mother: like the museum, she filled her category. I knew no other, and accepted her as the index, inclusive and definitive, of women. Now I see that she too was provincial, containing much that was beautiful, but somewhat jumbled, and distorted by great gaps.
Updike’s story helped me find an illustration for this post: a woman in a museum. He writes: I one day discovered a smooth statuette of a nude asleep on a mattress. Ignoring Coleridge’s dictum and the presumed fictionality of Updike’s story, I searched Google Images for the self-same statuette. What I found instead was the disturbingly seductive combination of a marble Hermaphrodite, of Roman origin, and a more recent mattress, sculpted by Bernini in 1620.
One of his anecdotes is of “the girl who was to become my wife”. He struck up a conversation with her on the museum steps in the snow, where she stood smoking in ragged sneakers. I quote:
“... It would never occur to me, for example, to stand outside in the snow in bare feet.”
“They’re not really bare.”
Nevertheless I yearned to touch them, to comfort them. There was in this girl, this pale creature of the college museum, a withdrawing that drew me forward. I felt in her an innocent sad blankness where I must stamp my name. I pursued her through the museum....
Oh, that innocent sad blankness! How many girls have tantalized me with that space, where I just wanted to stamp my name! And thus, in my reading, I find that sharp poignant joy of discovery, rolling back all the years to the love affairs I had, and especially the ones I merely imagined. Updike’s narrator proposes an equivalence, of women and museums:
Both words hum. Both suggest radiance, antiquity, mystery, and duty.
Me, I’ve been to museums, seen marbles and bronzes. So I know by analogy what I may have missed.
Phew! Reading. It can be an extreme sport.
Posted by Vincent at 2:47 pm