Monthly Archives: April 2006

Reading and eating

Just having finished dinner, I’m in a mood to think about eating, and Manguel helps me connect two of my favorite things: books and food. Manguel says of reading that it:

demands to be explained in images that lie outside the reader’s library and yet within the reader’s body, so that the function of reading is associated with our other essential bodily functions. Reading — as we have seen — serves as a metaphoric vehicle, but in order to be understood must itself be recognized through metaphors. Just as writers speak of cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare bones of an argument, turning the ingredients of a potboiler into soggy prose, a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth, we, the readers, speak of savouring a book, of finding nourishment in it, of devouring a book at one sitting, of regurgitating or spewing up a text, of fuminating on a passage, of rolling a poet’s words on the tongue, of feasting on poetry, of living on a diet of detective stories. In an essay on the art of studying, the sixteenth-century English scholar Francis Bacon catalogued the process: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

What a list! Certainly, Manguel’s book is one to be chewed and digested. I like the metaphor of reading as eating because of the way it implies that books become part of who we are, just as food does. We ingest and digest them, so that they become indistinguishable from other parts of our selves. They become so much a part of us, at least some books do, that we can’t really tell exactly how they have affected us. They become “internalized” so that they shape the way we think and the way we understand the world.

I feel this way particularly about a writer like Jane Austen — I have so thoroughly “devoured” her books that I know they have shaped my thinking, but I can’t quite say how. The books are too much a part of me to analyze their effect. When I was in graduate school, I decided I could never take a course on Jane Austen because I wouldn’t know what to say about her in a critical paper. I can appreciate her, certainly, but that’s not exactly what you do in graduate school papers. I can’t get any critical distance on her, I feel like, because I’ve so thoroughly ingested her.

I’m guessing you can think of similar examples from your own experience??

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Race report

What a mess this day was. My race this morning was fine, and my husband’s was fine too until the very end when he was involved in a big crash, and we ended up spending the afternoon in the emergency room. That was not the kind of drama we were looking for today! He’s fine, but with a cracked rib and a lot of scraped-off skin. He’s on some fancy painkiller they gave him at the hospital.

That’s the risk you take when you ride, I suppose, and especially when you race. The only crashes I’ve been involved in so far are ones I’ve accomplished all on my own — accidently riding off the road and tipping over, not being able to get out of my clipless pedals, that sort of clutzy thing. But one day I’ll be in a real crash, I’m sure.

I’ll keep riding, though, and I’m positive my husband will too. I’m not the sort of person who tries very hard to avoid risk. I’m no daredevil, but I think that, at least for me, a perfectly safe life isn’t the best kind of life to live.

I haven’t had a moment to read until now, so I will be off to my books soon.

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Poetry Friday: Mary Oliver

I finished Mary Oliver’s book American Primitive yesterday, and I recommend it highly. This is her second-to-last poem, and it blew my mind:

The Plum Trees

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

I was struck by the idea of happiness as being physical first and only then mental. I usually think of it as an aspect of the mind, a mental state. And many think of happiness as a spiritual state. But I love the idea of finding happiness by taking it in through the senses. I think, generally, that attaining a state of happiness isn’t a good goal — it’s so elusive and fleeting and for some reason humans just don’t seem to be made to be happy. And what is happiness, exactly? But I think if one is going to seek happiness, even short experiences of it, seeking it through the physical world is going to be the most reliable way — through experiencing the body intensely and through interaction with the outside world.

The connection between body and mind is built into our language. Oliver’s line about sensual inundation being sensible is breath-taking: she’s playing with word “sense,” its inclusion in both “sensual” and “sensible” and its reference both to the bodily senses and to mental sense, or thinking. Sensual inundation, while it might appear to be excessive, overloading the senses, really is the most sensible, or reasonable, thing to seek. Bodily experience is not something opposed to mental experience — a deeply-felt bodily experience, even one of “disorder and astonishment” that “rattles your thoughts” as Oliver says, is going to strengthen your mind.

I feel like I have things to say about this I don’t have time for now, so I’ll probably come back to this poem and this idea, but I will say that one of the most important things I’ve learned as an adult is to stop privileging mental experiences over physical ones. I grew up in a Christian tradition that is profoundly ambivalent about the body, and it is only by moving away from that tradition that I’ve been able to think about the relationship of mind and body in what I think is a saner way. I like to write about cycling and backpacking because they are part of how I think through these issues: exercise isn’t merely exercise but another way to live in the world. It’s sort of like my body’s way of “reading” — reading is one way the mind understands the world — one way out of many — and walking, running, riding are possibilities for the body.

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Help readers! Our books need rescuing!

Here’s more from Alberto Manguel, from a chapter on how we categorize and classify our books:

Rooms, corridors, bookcases, shelves, filing cards and computerized catalogues assume that the subjects on which our thoughts dwell are actual entities, and through this assumption a certain book may be lent a particular tone and value. Filed under Fiction, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a humorous novel of adventure; under Sociology, a satirical study of England in the eighteenth century; under Children’s Literature, an entertaining fable about dwarfs and giants and talking horses; under Fantasy, a precursor of science fiction; under Travel, an imaginary voyage; under Classics, a part of the Western literary canon.


Here’s the best part of the passage:

Categories are exclusive; reading is not — or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader — the curious reader, the alert reader — to rescue the book from the category to which it had been condemned.

It’s another way that reading is subversive — whether we like it or not. Any book transcends the category we want to confine it in, and as readers we are able to recognize the ways the categories are misleading and limiting. Of course, we need classification systems for our books, or we’d never find them, but I like Manguel’s reminder that our categories don’t have any existence in and of themselves. They are imaginary and they are arbitrary. And it’s great to think that by reading imaginatively we’re fighting tyranny. Even if we are talking about the tyranny of libraries, generally excellent institutions. Actually, he’s not really talking about the tyranny of libraries, but about the habit of believing that the books really and truly belong to the categories we place them in and nowhere else.

So, please, don’t let your books lead narrow lives, isolated lives. Read them with curiosity and imagination, and rescue them!

I promise I’ll stop posting on Manguel one of these days. You may be getting sick of him by now. But he’s SO GREAT!

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More lists!

For those of you who like them, here are two lists, both from UK bookseller Waterstone’s. The first list is 30 books the booksellers think merit rediscovery. The second offers 25 insufficiently-recognized books recommended by authors and celebrities. This list includes a short write-up by the recommender. (Link via The Literary Saloon).

I’ve read only three books from the first list (Vonnegut, Russo, and Yates) and none from the second. Yikes! It looks like there’s lots of good stuff there. My only quibble is that I’m not sure Slaughter House 5 needs rediscovery — hasn’t that book remained quite popular? I fully recognize the purpose of these lists is to generate sales, but still, a good list is a good list. And there’s nothing to keep us from getting the books from the library, if we prefer.

Also, the short list for the Orange prize is out.

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A riding/reading post

I got chased by a dog on my ride today. That doesn’t happen often around here; people are usually very aware of the traffic and keep their dogs fenced in. This one surprised me, as I was distracted trying to get glass off my tires — I’d just ridden over some that was strewn all across the road and impossible to avoid. One of the mildly cool things I’ve learned how to do is to use my cycling gloves to scrape glass off my tires while continuing to ride — to pedal even. Thank God there were no cars around because I had to swerve into the middle of the road to avoid hitting the thing. It was little and I knew it wouldn’t attack me, but I sure didn’t want to run it over.

Anyway, I was remembering recently how racers from my old cycling club — the one I rode with until this last year — told me that the racers from my new cycling club were stuck-up and stand-offish. They weren’t really interested in new riders, and you couldn’t easily break into their group. They certainly weren’t interested in riders who weren’t great racers, which I am not. Now I haven’t found this to be true at all. My new club members, once I got to know them a bit, are actually very welcoming. I felt this most strongly when they formed a little cheering section for me when I finished my last race.

The funny thing is, the racers from my old club had a reputation for being stuck-up too. They weren’t interested in new riders, and you couldn’t easily break into their group, or so I was told. They just wanted to ride with each other, and no one else. That also turned out not to be true. Once I got to know them, they became my friends.

I realized after a while what’s going on here: these people aren’t stuck-up — they are shy! Both groups were. They weren’t the sort to go out of their way to introduce themselves, not because they were cliquish, but because that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did. It didn’t really occur to them. Once I started riding with them, however — which doesn’t require an invitation, all you have to do is show up — they got over their shyness and welcomed me.

I think it’s sad that rather than figuring out that others are shy, people tend to perceive them as closed-off. I think it’s particularly sad because I am a shy person myself, and I certainly don’t want people thinking I’m stuck-up or stand-offish. I wonder if that has happened to me, and how often. I do try to remember that when people act in a way that I think is a bit odd, that there may be something more going on than I realize. As someone who reads and thinks about people a lot, I think I understand what is going on in people’s minds. I suspect, though, that often I don’t.

Here’s the reading part. The other day, I came across this from The Line of Beauty:

Nick blushed with pleasure and wished there was a way to distinguish shy from stuck-up — the muddle had dogged him for years.


You see what I mean?

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Updates

Last weekend was terrible for riding. It rained both Saturday and Sunday, pretty much non-stop. Lots of people at work are reporting flooded basements. I’m not even looking at mine.

But reading was good. Here’s what’s going on in my reading world:

  • I began Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and have read about 120 pages so far. So far, it’s great. It’s a good story, absorbing, with an engaging main character, and the sentences are beautiful. I’ll write more later, but basically it’s about a 20-year-old man living with a wealthy London family; the father in the family is a recently-successful Tory MP. It takes place in the 80s under Thatcher. The main character, Nick, comes from a much less wealthy background and is gay, and so is an outsider in several senses. He is figuring out his place in the family and in the world at large.
  • I’m continuing with Manguel’s History of Reading, which, if you have looked at this blog before you will know, I like quite a lot. More quotations to follow.
  • I’m almost finished with Mary Oliver’s book of poems American Primitive, which I highly recommend. Very beautiful, striking poems about nature and people in nature. I’ve posted a few poems here.
  • I’m slowly reading The Tale of Genji, a series of loosely-linked stories about court life in 11th century Japan and could be considered the first novel (if you’re into things like naming first novels). This world is very remote from ours, in time and in customs. The stories so far have been about Genji’s pursuit of women and the political consequences of those pursuits. I’ve only read about 1/10 of the book and I’m sensing now that the plot is shifting from Genji’s pursuit of women to his taking on a more powerful political role and having to give up some of his youthful pleasures. We’ll see.
  • Finally, I’m slowly reading through Virginia Woolf’s diary, Vol. 1. This is a good book to look into for a bit before falling asleep — not to say that it’s boring, but it’s best read slowly, and I like keeping something on the nightstand to read for 10 minutes or so before bed. It’s largely about her reading and writing, her friends, her entertaining, her work with Leonard on their printing press. It’s a valuable read, I think, for the occasional revealing detail or eloquent description.

In spite of my earlier post about longing to do more rereading, I bought more books over the weekend. I suppose new books will most often win out over the old ones. Pretty, new books are just too hard to resist.

I picked up a copy of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which I heard about through Jane Smiley’s book about reading novels. Those of you who like book lists might like hers — she has a list of 100 novels she read in the course of three years and this book describes that project. You’ll find the list here.

I also got a new book of poems, Jane Hirschfield’s book Given Sugar, Given Salt for when I’m finished with Oliver. I read Hirschfield’s book of essays on poetry, Nine Gates, a couple years back and loved it. This book is a great way to learn how to read poems or to enhance your reading of poetry; her insights are exquisite. I don’t mean to imply that her book is about “how to read a poem,” but in the course of discussing particular poems she models careful, sensitive, deep reading.

Finally, I picked up Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black. I’m looking forward to this one.

So, although I have many, many great Manguel quotes to leave you with, I’ll limit myself to one:

However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read. The process by which the circle is complete is not, Whitman argued, merely an intellectual one; we read intellectually on a superficial level, grasping certain meanings and conscious of certain facts, but at the same time, invisibly, unconsciously, text and reader become intertwined, creating new levels of meaning, so that every time we cause the text to yield something by ingesting it, simultaneously something else is born beneath it that we haven’t yet grasped. That is why — as Whitman believed, rewriting and re-editing his poems over and over again — no reading can ever be definitive.

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