17. Why Read?
I read from a young age and hated fiction. Poetry was something dad read to bore us. As it happens he read Larkin: my sister and I would run into mum and dad’s bedroom on a weekend morning and Whitsun Weddings would come out. I don’t think we appreciated waking up in sunshine (it is sunny in that memory) only to be told our life was dreary, miserable and commonplacely depressing. Sadness is fine as long as it’s yours. This became a joke, then a running joke, then stopped altogether.
My sister would read Swallows and Amazons, but I really couldn’t see the point. She was the artsy child, and I was the engineer/scientist. I read, over and over again, ‘The Illustrated Highway Code’ – landscape format with a red cover and the Vauxhall logo on the front. My favourites were level crossings and how to pass a horse on a country lane. I also liked instruction books for Lego sets, and was a subscriber to ‘Truck and Driver’ magazine – a kind of hobby/lifestyle publication for long distance lorry drivers.
I couldn’t see why you would want to read something that was made up. It didn’t strike me as useful. I liked practical advice, step by step instructions, tips for living in the world. I used to be what is known as a ‘whittler’ – someone who worries excessively – often told to ‘stop whittlin’ on.’ What if I was called on to rope and sheet a flatbed, and didn’t know the techniques let alone the regulations and legal requirements regarding loose ends or wide loads?
Ageing, however, the racing mind needs more than what she can surround herself with. Everyone has imagination, but imagination isn’t actually a very advanced tool. All it really does is combine things it already knows in different ways. Medieval bestiaries illustrate how unimaginative imagination is: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, anthropophagi, all work with the same “something known, plus something known, with aspects of something else.” What you really need is something you have no idea about.
At 16 I did my first bit of reading, about 11 years after I first learnt to process words in an order. I haven’t read much since really, no one does. It was La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Keats. I looked into him. I didn’t think he was lying, I believed he used to be a living person, which left one option: something had happened to him that was beyond my ken, but presumably it was equally possible that something like his experience could happen to me. Poetry is a record of something possible. Novels provide a whole wealth of possible trajectories.
“Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organised after the manner of narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.” That’s Paul Ricoeur, from his 3 volume masterwork Time and Narrative. That quote is from page 3, volume 1, and I trust it continues in a similar vein. I absolutely believe him though. If you believe a fictional character’s life, or feel something in a line of verse, you do so because it portrays the features of temporal experience. It is something which is, for you, (probably) unexperienced (precisely that way), but possible.
To read, then, is to be addicted to the infinite of possible futures. Each thing read is a provisional manifesto – a statement of how the future might (or should) go. There are infinite variations, even from this point in this piece, as to how it all will go. I think this is why Joseph Brodsky could say: “there is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth… If only because the lock and stock of literature is indeed human diversity and perversity, it turns out to be a reliable antidote for any attempt – whether familiar or yet to be invented – toward a total mass solution to the problems of human existence.” Tyranny is only reading one book.
He sounds like a bloody dreamer. Readers seem to be categorised as dreamers, like my sister reading Swallows and bloody Amazons and neglecting the practical, hard-headed school of fact that she’s going to need if she is ever driving behind a horse on a country lane. Every written thing strikes us as a dream. But the dream becomes as taut as a hypothesis, waiting in the background for the correct experiment to float into the present and prove it right or wrong.
There is, of course, another option – that you know exactly what the writer is talking about, that the experiment has already happened. This is normally about love, I think. The chances of biographies matching up is almost zero, but for all its excitement, buoyancy and boisterous falls love is experienced (it seems) the same way. As a topic it is boring and endless, as a feeling it is chaotic, with all the variables of two people interacting in the least programmatic but most predictable way. Reading about love is background research or peer review. Sometimes it explains better what we already know, gives it form and structure and reason. Gatsby ends up alone and rich, and then one fine morning… My current addiction to the sadness of old men winding down gives variously things to aim at and avoid.
Thinking of life like a narrative is dangerous, and fatal if caught too young; constructing the future is an addiction, and turns very sour in the moments when time decides to re-assert that you don’t write your life (it does). Remember this, however, and you are free to know what might happen. Reading strings time together. It creates a useful if illusory framework. The best books take ages to read, only because every line sends you staring into space, thinking how it jigsaws with everything else. Each thing is an opening.
Montale thought, and thought till the end, that “art is a form of life that doesn’t truly live: a compensation, or a surrogate”, he is right. But it doesn’t swamp the past, it structures a future that hasn’t truly had time to live, or codifies the loose end of a past. I couldn’t even begin to drive when I was 6. Maybe my reasons for reading haven’t changed.