The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: February 14, 2007

As predicted my reading pace plummeted this month. The only book I completed so far was The World of Christopher Robin by Milne; The Italian will be finished by the end of the day. I’ve made no advancement with Shriek (haven’t tried, truth be told) but I did naughtily stray into American Purgatorio by John Haskell, just to see if I would like it, he being an author entirely new to me and not mentioned often. I re-shelved it, assured that it was so.

What I will start next is Roger Mais’ Black Lightning, the last of his novels in my set. I want something to create a break between the Radcliffe and Jane Eyre which I promised to re-read this month. Expect more poetry posts as Ted Hughes and Irving Layton have taken up residence in my cranial abode. I don’t see Don Quixote happening this month.

Danielle asked on her blog how to tell whether the book you’re reading is good and, as an extension of that, how do you read, what is your approach, how demanding or generous are you? Once I’ve chosen a fiction title I try to approach it with as few expectations as possible. I want to be open to whatever the author wants to do and wherever she wants to take me. My tastes are the obvious limits to this but, unless my reaction is immediately and overwhelmingly negative, I do step out of my boundaries now and again even if previous outings were unsuccessful. I am too curious not to.

Experimental fiction, the kind where the author plays around with syntax and/or formatting of language, I typically find very off-putting. I wickedly enjoyed the introduction to Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, but a flip through the narrative sent me timidly into retreat. I tried Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs but it…it was too much. The book annoyed me which I found frustrating because I doubted whether Gibson was really pushing the line that much. Why couldn’t I like it? I wanted to like it. And I still think there’s a novel of that kind out there with my name on it.

I derive much pleasure from reading critically. I enjoy books in different ways, almost wholly dependent on what the author himself is endeavouring to achieve in his work, but I do not draw a jagged line among my tottering book piles marking those for “enjoyment” and others for “analysis”. Because I do enjoy analysis I lean towards a more “academic” manner in principle if not in actions. To me this translates into studying why the prose, the diction, the themes and their development and so on give me pleasure; and also to figure out why an author chose to do this, rather than that, what idea was she trying to convey or what reaction he was trying to provoke. I’m actively engaging with the novel rather than letting it was over me. Truth be told I don’t consider this to be “academic” at all. When I become more versed in the different critical movements and the theories that drive them, then I’m getting somewhere, but basic critical engagement with a book barely deserves that label. I find this demarcation of anything involving brain activity to the universities and the “intellectuals” while the masses are left to muddle along in a veritable coma a very, very, very damaging world view.

To get back on track some of the authors I enjoy write with very modest aims and I, in turn, make very modest demands. I do not have a check list that I use to read every book, checking for “three-dimensional” characters and “convincing setting” and what have you. Sometimes those things don’t work towards the best interests of a novel. The author has different ideas and uses different tools to shape them. As long as it works that’s enough for me. I don’t know if I’m a generous or demanding reader, but I like to think that I’m fair.

4 Responses to "Update"

Your reading patterns sound familiar to me — reading critically but not in the negative sense, rather in the sense of thinking about it as I go along, consider how the author creates certain effects, etc. I find that I tend to enjoy most things I read, which is a fun way to read, I think!

I don’t really read much experimental fiction, but I would like to give it a try. Lately I have been curious when reading other reader’s reviews of books when they mention holes in the plot or one-dimensional characters, etc. I don’t know that I always pick up on these things (probably I am going for the story and not looking for these sorts of things?). I want to be more thoughtful (not sure for me that critical is the word that would work, but certainly more aware) in books such as classics or award winning novels–I want to know more why it works (why it has won awards or why it has lasted so long as a book to be taught). Like you I think some novels do have modest aims (I like how you phrase that), and don’t demand to be picked apart, so I go more with gut feeling (whether I enjoyed the story basically). Thanks for posting on this–I like to know how others approach what they read!

Dorothy that’s exactly how I look at it. I can’t imagine how dour a reader would have to be to go *looking* for errors in a book. I tend to enjoy most of the books I try too. Sometimes it makes me wonder whether I’m really reading critically at all. 😀

Danielle well I just finished The Italian and it has its share of one-dimensional characters so maybe I’ll be able to expound a bit on what I think that means when I write my review. Like I said to Dorothy I tend to relish most of the books I read, so I rarely come across these things. And yes some of my reads aren’t meant to stand up to critical scrutiny and I pretty much go on whether I liked it or not.

You’re welcome! I liked the question.

I can empathise with you over reading speed – I don’t seem to have any time to read anything just now! Thankfully tomorrow is my day off. I sense a good few hours uninterrupted reading ahead!

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