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Posts tagged ‘Joyce’

18. Why Read?

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books and writes the blog EmilyBooks.

8. Why Read?

As any parent will know, ‘Why?’ is the central question of early childhood. Why’s the sky blue? Why’s water wet? Daddy, why aren’t you rich?

But as the father of an infant son, it strikes me that ‘Why Read?’ is a question we only learn to ask as we get older – and, I’d suggest, more cynical.

For my two-year-old, reading is still exactly what it should be: unbridled joy. He doesn’t read because he thinks he should, but because books, any books, take him somewhere new, a place more colourful, more magical. They allow him to explore not just the world around him, but also the manifold universes that exist in his own hungry imagination. His love of books is uncomplicated, unconditional.

As we get older, we can all too easily lose sight of this. At school and university, where I studied English Literature, my relationship with books became rather more, well, platonic. More often than not, I picked up a book because I had to, because it might earn me a higher mark, because it would make me brighter, ‘better read’. I learned an awful lot about books, their authors, narratives, subtexts and structures, but very little about how to enjoy them.

Not that I entirely fell out of love with reading. Some of the titles on my curriculum – Dickens’s Bleak House springs to mind – caused me untold agony. I got indigestion every time I picked them up. Others, however, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, changed my life. I read that book in one go, in a tent, in a storm, and sobbed hysterically when it ended. I remember having to get blind drunk on cheap French plonk just to get over it – and I’m not really the sentimental sort.

But by the time I left university, my attitude to reading had changed. And not really for the better. Books had become less of a joy than a duty, a means to become, shudder, ‘a better person’. As a reader, I had become a hopeless self-improver.

Part of the problem is that the books we read, like the clothes we wear, appear to say an awful lot about us. Consequently, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying the books we think we might look good reading. Ulysses is a good example – most have it; few have finished it.

I certainly first picked up Ulysses not really because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I wanted to be one of that select bunch that genuinely gets to the end of it. Perhaps predictably, I failed. Several times. Partly out of desperation, I even tried starting it from the back – only to discover, in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of prose I have ever read (not that it made the preceding 1,000 pages any easier).

And so I stopped reading because I ‘should’, and started reading for that most rewarding, and blissfully childlike, of reasons: fun.

In fact, it was Bernard Cornwell who made me fall back in love with books. I picked up Azincourt first, and then consumed rapidly more or less everything else. Now I’ve moved onto George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones has recently become a huge TV hit.

Neither appeared on my university curriculum, and neither, I suppose, make me look terribly alluring when I’m spotted reading them on the bus to work. I suppose you could dismiss them as mass market. Popcorn reading.

But who cares? I don’t have to ask why I read these books, the smile on my face is reason enough.

Besides, my son is in love with The Very Hungry Caterpillar – and if pure, unpretentious enthusiasm is anything to go by, he’s the best critic of all.

Matt Warren is Editor of The Lady (www.lady.co.uk)