Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Problem of Reading

After a hefty dinner at Arya, Ginny and I managed to stumble towards our temple, Fully Booked at the Greenhills Promenade, in order to search for a good novel.

Yes, I know! Why am I spending so much for books, bound sheets between glue and thin paperboard backings? I have to pay for food (and have you noticed that for most of this vacation, I eat too much? I do, I do) and transportation and all those little incidentals that seem to pile up, like the fragile carcasses of small scarlet ants, and then now I have to remember that I am not writing a poem here, or a short narrative, but an entry. Anyway, back to the bookstore. I wanted to find a novel. I realized that there is a dearth of novels in my life right now; the last I read was Marisha Pessl's Special Topics on Calamity Physics which was an interesting read, particularly in terms of structure, but the voice seemed rather unbelievable and somehow, I wasn't quite sucked into the story that she was weaving, and maybe that's what I'm looking for right now - something to suck me in, a maelstrom of words and sensations, rife with life palpitating like blood between the covers - but as we traversed the bookstore from end to end, we found nothing.

Oh yes, we would pick up a volume here, a volume there, but there was nothing to grab my attention. Too many books were described as being "written beautifully" by anonymous dust jacket writers, or they were "a tour de force" in the "crumbling literary world." I feel sorry for these dust jacket writers: I imagine them in little windowless rooms underneath the basement of some cavernous megalithic building, usually made of gray stone, typing away some three-line masterpiece that would go on the back of the freshest crap off the presses. I remember Salman Rushdie saying that (to paraphrase the thought) the problem isn't the lack of good literature, because it's there, but rather, the fact that we, the readers, have to wade through piles and piles of crap before we find them. And sometimes, we just can't be bothered to wade through them - crap is crap, and all we are doing is killing off vast tracts of forests in order to propagate new crap. There are too many single women falling in love with the wrong/right man, too many stories of war and nostalgia, of memories constructed and true. The human experience, both ordinary and fantastic, has been mined to the very foundations. We are closely reaching the core - we are about to explode.

And there's a part of me that is saddened by all of this. Because I love books, and reading, and words - I fall in love, in the truest, purest sense of the word - with a good story. And reading has been elevated to a theoretical discussion, to the entire concept of literary backstabbing and hair-pulling, the more academic version of mud wrestling and cat fights. We are too serious about the way we read, and conversely, the way we write. Our literary forebearers couldn't care less, I'm sure; what we say in the universe, in our lifetimes, is just a blip on the grand radar, a little stutter on the machine. But we keep on trying - we want to try because...

Well, fill in the blanks, right?

Anyway, back to our journey. We never found a novel that suited our purposes, sad to say: I ended up with a copy of the The Best American Poetry 2006, which was guest-edited by Billy Collins, who happens to be one of my favorite poets, and a copy of Susan Sontag's Where the Stress Falls, which is a collection of her longer essays. I still feel thwarted by the fact that, in the vast cavern of books both big and small, of the shelves and shelves of volumes all falling off the wooden ledges like birds taking their first downward spiral from the branch, we never found anything important enough to read.

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