But sure here goes anyway…
I’m currently reading two books – THE SEA (Banville) and FATHERS AND SONS (Turgenev) - with another two waiting in the wings, that is to say on the bedside table. The current understudies - to extend the theatrical metaphor - are PURITY (Franzen) and THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING (McCann). Simultaneously, or perhaps I should say parallel to this, I am also teaching a range of texts which necessarily requires my re-reading them – THE GREAT GATSBY, and selection of poems from Sylvia Plath and Paul Durcan. What I’m wondering is…can I really be reading like this? Can this fractured, schizoid literary experience be deemed reading?
When you write, what you want more than anything is for your readers to sit in a quiet room and read your work right the way through, the way you read it yourself, but without the frustrations and myopic closeness. You want somebody to care for the story and the words like you do, only with fresher eyes and a less cynical heart. That is to say, you want them to love your words before they’ve ever really known them. And to then love them even more in retrospect.
That's not so much to ask, is it?
My ideal reader sits alone in a sunlit room, perhaps under the light of a dipping sun (an Iberian or Neapolitan sun, I think) and with that last light irradiating through a half-dressed glass of red wine, standing tall and languid in reassuring proximity to the book that is lain across my reader's lap. I imagine my readers to be distraction free, in solitude and oneness with the words. I want them to love my words but I am not so demanding an authorial tyrant as to openly demand this.
But how can we expect this when we don’t even read this way ourselves?
Let me deal with this by way of tangent: For all the talk of the internet and social media and gaming and coding and screen-time, and the detrimental impact these technologies have on the development of our minds, it is also true to point out that we inhabit the most text saturated world in the history of human civilisation. Words are everywhere. Messages are mixed and texts and forms compete constantly for our attention. For the purists, and each year I get crankier and purer with age, the quality of these texts and the attention we afford them is compromised. But once upon a time authors used to say, ‘Read anything. As long as people are reading, we’ll be okay.’
I think we will come to terms with the internet at some point in the near future and that reading as we once understood it will return in a more recognisable form. I think we’ll come to recognise the dissatisfaction, the restlessness induced by the snapshots of the world offered us by online versions of news stories, by music videos or films interrupted by advertisements, and we’ll migrate back toward what we as a species seem to have a voracious appetite for – ideas, narrative and things that bend and stretch the mind. We’ll thirst for more again when we’ve grown tired of having our minds numbed. The novelty of all this always-on technology will wear off and we’ll learn to use these cultural phenomena the way we use TV or radio…or books. Not as a means of living but as a means of intimacy and escape. We’ll master the technology and the hold it has over us. It will become put-downable, switch-offable, and we will be free.
So reading is not dead, it's just that right now it’s being eclipsed by its brasher, louder younger brother. But the kid brother will grow up eventually, or the world around him will stop indulging him. Either way, his reign will end. And then we’ll see.
Then we’ll hear again and know again and start asking questions of ourselves again. Instead of watching others and casting aspersions, instead of having to choose between cynicism or bathos, we’ll start to think of the world again in terms of each other and our place in that human nexus. And reading will be once again, as it always has been, a window into our souls. Into the heart of the very worlds we inhabit.
And I'll learn to settle on a single text, to read it, enjoy it, and move on.
The future is coming...naturally enough.