Reading into a solitary vice

Reading into a solitary vice

A young writer at a writing workshop working on her first book nervously asked me recently what I thought of not finishing reading books — that is, if it was okay to chuck a book if it didn’t interest her.

I remembered what the writer Lynne Schwartz had once written about this and paraphrased her in answering: “If you can’t finish a book, hurl it down, she says. Because a book must give you what you crave.” She is not alone in willing to admit that not all books can and must be read; several writers have spoken and written about not clinging to the idea of reading as sacred. Literary critic Mikita Brottman referred to reading as the solitary vice and has this to say about not finishing a book you’ve started: “If you can manage to get hooked by a classic novel, by all means go ahead and read it, but if not, remember, you can always watch the movie.”

“Is reading worth the investment of a lifetime?” asked Schwartz in one of her books, and answers that no girl’s life was ever ruined by a book, nor saved by one either. Don’t, she warns, look at fictional characters because even the best of them “travel in confusion and come to a bad end.” And this, Schwartz informs us, is precisely why their lives are worth inventing. So that the reader can counsel them: “do this, do that, don’t forget to mail that letter, don’t get on that plane, divorce him, marry her, look over your shoulder for heaven’s sake — but to no avail.”

Those of us with unread and unfinished books languishing on our shelves will smile in recognition at the reasons she offers for why books on her shelf go unread in Ruined by Reading. “Some of these books”, she points out, “were bought because friends said I must read them (but it was they who had to read them), or because the reviews throbbed with largesse of spirit (but it was the reviewer that I loved; I should have bought the reviewer’s book). Others were just too gorgeously packed to resist.” Schwartz sweetly confesses that she could never lie about reading because “a remnant of holiness still clings” to the act.

She can — and has — easily abandoned even the most “sanctified or stylish” literary masterpiece. Because a book must give you what you crave: “ecstasy, transcendence, a thrill of mysterious connection. For, more than anything, readers are thrill seekers”. For Schwartz, there are many kinds of reading as there are many kind of loves, not all of them intoxicating. Books are compared to lovers and husbands; reading to love affairs and marriages. “There are after all so many delectable books in the world. Why linger with one that doesn’t offer new delights? I feel detached from the book in my lap much as the disaffected husband or wife feels detached from the body alongside and asks, why am I here, in this state of withness? In a marriage, one hopes it may be a transient feeling — but in the case of a book, why not be abandoned, and abandon?”

In this memoir of her childhood reading, she mourns the loss of certain books now that she is an adult. Books read as a teenager do not feel the same anymore. Tender is the Night won her 18-year-old heart: “seductiveness is Fitzgerald’s chief talent, and 18 year olds are eminently seducible”. Some 20 years later, Schwartz decides to revisit his work and finds, “The Great Gatsby happily unaltered but a strange sea change had overtaken Tender is the Night. It had become a babble of silliness. It wasn’t, of course, only I had lost the exaggerated romanticism required to read it. I hope exaggerated romanticism still thrives somewhere.”

I actually read less and less these days. “Don’t we all?” chorus my friends when I tell them that. Reading has become a form of discipline for me. Something I must mindfully do every day, and not let myself be swamped or distracted by easier or less rewarding tasks. I have become suddenly aware that curling up with a book is one of the few solitary pleasures left to me. These days I read not so much for literary reasons as much as personal enjoyment. Surely, what we read is what we are or what we are becoming — or desire to become? Reading has given me a sense of my-self, has taken me away from the world, and returned me to my solitude. It’s really one of the last solitary activities left, isn’t it? And that is why, though it might make you lonesome sometimes, it’s a way of taking us deeper into ourselves, of returning us to ourselves from being in the world too much.

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