It’s not enough to say that no reader would want to read about another person reading. What anyone wants or does not want never stopped the maestros of metafiction before, and this project sounds meta to me. Besides, plenty of other and far more mundane activities than reading have been written about by this point. Lots can be accomplished by an author while a character is in the process of getting dressed or taking a shower, for instance. Updike could carve a paragraph out of raising a pencil. Joyce had his famous passages about nothing more glamorous than the front and back ends of the digestive process. Some writers have even contrived to make sex interesting. Surely it wouldn’t be beyond their powers to write a scintillating reading scene.
I am not myself a writer of fiction. I’m not good at making things up, and though I suppose I could just write about myself through fictional characters, why would I want to give them the credit? So the best I can do to remedy this deficiency is to describe in this non-fictional medium what’s wrong with these earlier depictions from the standpoint of realism, in the hope that a greater artist will one day write the grand “reading novel” that the world needs. What follows, then, are the facts of my own reading habits, as honestly as I can relate them.
First, however, I want to clarify one point. The failure of realism described above is not necessarily a failure to observe and accurately depict human behavior. There have in fact no doubt been plenty of duchesses throughout history who ring for maids five pages past the flyleaf of an uninteresting book. An adolescent Scott Fitzgerald probably did at some point climb into a window seat and loudly cough “Ha! Great stuff!” over a well-planted George Bernard Shaw volume, so that others would note what he was reading – as does the authorial stand-in character from This Side of Paradise. Many of us have been Stephen Dedalus, “Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh?” (Ulysses). These are of course things we do, or at least, things that we have done. In high school and early college, there were many bucket-fulls of books that I “read” in this fashion, that is, à la duchesse. There were books that I “idly thumbed” and languidly skimmed in five-page installments, until I had somehow ascended from exposition to climax and back again without registering any emotion or recalling any details of plot and character after the fact, but which still gave me some unearned sense of accomplishment from having "finished" them. Indeed, This Side of Paradise was one of these – that George Bernard Shaw scene is pretty much the only detail from the book I retain, as it was the only one that I recognized as true to my life and world at the time I read it.
My duchess proclivities were made even worse as a teenager, I might add, by a dreadfully self-limiting rule I had concocted for myself. Following, I guess, some deep-rooted Protestant instinct for indefinitely delayed gratification, I persuaded myself for a time that any book I really wanted to read had to be saved for later, and that I first had to wade through everything I didn’t – Conrad, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other names that still fill me with a terrible dread, for boredom is a kind of despair.
I had not yet realized that it means absolutely nothing to “read” literature in this way – that there is no more purpose to registering the words in a novel to which you do not psychically respond than there is in running your eyes over formulae and equations that you are not equipped to understand nor use. Novels do not impart facts or theories—all they can teach you about is yourself, as you either vibrate harmonically or shudder discordantly with the things you find in them. That is all they are good for. (Read in quantities, of course, one seems to have the experience of gaining knowledge from novels, and one is, but in literature as in all fields, one can only learn what one already knows. We recognize and respond to a familiar fact, though it is slightly altered and refracted from the original. Then we read something else and recognize the refraction of that refraction. Eventually the first image has been refracted enough that it becomes something entirely different – a new emotional fact, in literature’s case – but it must begin from the familiar).
The other thing I hadn’t realized is that “what I want to read” was a category that was bound to change and shift a great deal, as I changed and shifted, so I needn't have feared what I did most greatly fear, and which led to my delayed gratification rule: that the "want-to-read" category might get used up too soon, leaving me with a whole middle age and dotage to fill with nothing but Joseph Conrad (this was in fact my nightmare – 60-year-old Josh wailing “why didn’t I save Zuleika Dobson for later, why? why?”). I hadn’t yet learned to simply trust the bizarre inner force that tells me what to pick up and when and what to read next when it’s done, and know that it cares about me enough not to leave me with nothing good to read at the end of its self-directed process.
The good news was that my duchess rules were never actually followed. The worst they did was to leave literary debris in their wake. Clustered on my nightstand throughout high school were guilt-inducing piles of immortal literature, all of them dog-eared at p. 20 after a fitful effort at holding open my eyes, and from which I gained nothing, because I was not yet ready for them. These sad efforts achieved nothing, but at least, I repeat, they did not actually succeed in preventing me from reading the books that did count for something. All along the way there were the moments of true literary kinship – the white lightning would run through an entire novel, even those I consumed in my duchess days, and for once I wouldn’t even pause to congratulate myself on how much I was reading, I wouldn’t even interrupt my concentration by asking myself: “Are you concentrating?”, I wouldn't even think "I'm really paying attention!" and thereby lose my attention.
The trouble is that this white lightning was such a rare thing, especially in high school and early college, before I had learned the usefulness of my instincts. There was not then (and still is not today, though now I have made my peace with it), any way to tell where the lightning would strike and where it would not. It did not follow any consistent rules as to genre and subject matter. It did not even respect the cherished fiction/non-fiction divide. It might strike in the case of one novel by an author, and I’d turn to another by the same person that had virtually the same themes and subject matter, expecting a fresh apparition -- but for no reason at all the next book would seem a dead, ridiculous, and embarrassing thing. Sorry, the world said, you have to wait another six months until we mysteriously place into your hands the thing you need at just this moment.
I can tell you the names of the books in which lightning struck, and can even come up with retrospective reasons for why it did so, of course. (The exercise will reveal a couple great truths, one of which is that you can never go home again, where books are concerned: lightning, as they say, does not strike twice.) In high school the white lightning books were the The Jungle and Babbitt (by “Upton Lewis,” joked Nabokov, for whom all socially-conscious Sinclairs were anathema). The idea of having a left-wing conscience is so familiar to me now that it fails to excite, but at the time it was a fresh and thrilling emotion to me, and these books were the first to inspire it. And just when that conscience was kicking into full life there came the essays of Orwell and The God That Failed -- the next lightning books -- to remind me that the desire to change the world must be counterbalanced by an equally powerful loathing of totalisms of all kinds, religious and political. The fact, meanwhile, that I was trying to be a pure-hearted revolutionary while also going through puberty is all you need to know to understand my fascination with Portnoy’s Complaint, which quickly followed. My later, briefer phase of seeing myself as a bluff, democratic straight-talker in a world run by pretentious toffs explains Lucky Jim (it was a very brief phase, let me emphasize – I have now accepted that I am and must be one of the toffs—but I retain fond memories of Jim Dixon). In college I suddenly had a need to read about perfect saints and total sinners, because these seemed to me the only two ways to live in an adult world that now loomed in the near but inaccessible future as something unspeakably brutal and callous. I therefore obsessed over my Death of Ivan Ilyich and What is Art? right alongside my Ginger Man and Martin Amis. I wanted to hear about strivers who would do anything, sell out anyone, to get ahead, like Sebastian Dangerfield and John Self and various Naipaul protagonists (who resemble their creator in this regard), or else I wanted to read about the total renunciates, Tolstoy's peasants and gurus, as the world had suddenly come to seem to me like a place in which ordinarily moral people could not stand to live. One of the best works for capturing my newly-attained, richly paranoiac sense of the cruelty at the heart of all adult activity was Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, which I took in great gulps on the underground floor of the college library, where life seemed to be closing around me and Heller alone could understand. It all seems a bit much to me now, but such is the nature of lightning books -- more on that after I complete the list.
As for my just-concluded divinity school days, it’s a little harder to look back at more recent books and pick out from them the true lightning examples from the ones that were simply very good—or else from the ones that I would like to claim were lightning books because I read them and they are "great literature," but which did not in fact take charge of my imagination. I can think of at least one example from this period, however, that was indisputably a lightning book: that luminous Updike novel, Roger’s Version. The reason that this one became a lightning book is not hard to fathom. At the time I read it, I was a seminary student who was completely unsure of what he was doing in that graduate program and of why he thought he could presume to be any kind of a leader, much less a spiritual one, of all things. And the universe chose at that moment to place into my hands a book about a professor and former minister at a liberal New England divinity school who was a total abyss of cynicism and predatory malice. This was far more comforting to me, at that moment, than any Seven Storey Mountain could have been. I can’t explain why reading books that magnify and exaggerate my own worst fears about the world and about myself continually bring me solace, but they do. Probably because the only real fear is loneliness, and terror is lessened simply by having it confirmed by another mind.
Going through this list makes me notice something else as well: each of these books came into my life during one, quite narrow window of time in which they could have taken maximal effect. There is something a bit vertigo-inducing about this realization – not only because I am suddenly made aware that I might have missed them entirely-- and then where would I be?, but also because the presumption follows that there must be hundreds of others out there that I might have found, but that overshot their windows somehow, and which I will never now appreciate in full. The good news is that if a book does fail to make it through its window, you’ll never really find out what you were missing. If you encounter it later on, after all, it will seem to you just another overwrought, self-pitying, thinly-veiled autobiography in which the author is transparently depicting him- or herself as the smartest and most generous-hearted person in a world otherwise full of fools and monsters, and you will lay it aside and be glad you never finished it.
This isn’t to say I now dislike any of the books listed above. Each lightning book left behind it a glow of perfect happiness I can access just by recalling its name; as well as characters, incidents, and paragraphs of maudlin philosophizing that I can retrieve the moment the opportunity arises -- Sebastian Dangerfield spilling his lunch tray in the cafeteria of Trinity College, just as I overturned mine in the first semester of college, when I was first reading Ginger Man; Jurgis of The Jungle trying to rinse the lice out of his hair with gravel, or being taking upstairs of the boss’s mansion by the man's inebriated son; Babbitt meeting the “radical lawyer” Seneca Doane; Alexander Portnoy feeling that when his sister cried, she cried for six million murdered Jews, but when he cried, he cried only for himself. These are indelible. Never would I want to reread these novels in full, though. Things would not be exactly as I remembered them, and might be a lot worse.
The other thing I notice about the lightning books, now that I lay them all out mentally before me, is that some of them appeal to my best self—my highest aspirations – and others to my worst one, my lowest instincts and impulses—and the very best of them work on both. The vast majority of them are also funny, I note, with a kind of brutal black humor and a cynicism that drills down to such considerable depths that it finally emerges into the mountains on the other side of the earth to encounter the cleanest air and the most breathtaking vistas. The lightning books and the lightning authors include in their ranks those who call me to the best sort of person that I try to be – Richard Wright, Tolstoy, Langston Hughes, George Orwell – as well as those who don’t let me forget the very worst of what I am – Martin Amis, Philip Larkin, Updike and Nabokov. One group allows me a fleeting reconciliation with a lofty superego, the other the dismal but more reliable companionship of a submerged libidinous self.
High-flying or low, however, the lightning books share one trait entirely in common: they are never too ashamed to tell the truth. Their finest attribute is their absolute honesty, from which inevitably arises both heart-breaking agony (Wright, Orwell, Hughes, Larkin) and deep-bellied laughter (Nabokov, Heller, Roth). By contrast, any “serious” book with a “life-affirming” message will never catch fire in me. Happiness that is not founded first of all in the struggle with pain and second in the use of humor to win small victories against it will always seem false to me in literature (or in anything).
Once having formulated all the theories and definitions, however, I find they can account well enough for the facts of past experience, but that they have no predictive power—they would not pass scientific muster, therefore. Evelyn Waugh, for instance, with his snark, wit, and savagery, would seem to check many of the boxes above. But reading The Loved One recently, my considerable delight over the book was killed in places by the obvious falseness that intervenes as soon as some opportunity to score points for Catholicism arises. The “snob” characters in the novel, we observe, all hate Italians and detest Franco, while Waugh unapologetically, if subtly, displays his own anti-Semitism. A prejudice is plainly ridiculous and ignoble, in Waugh’s eyes, when it is directed against Catholic countries and the handful of tinpot dictators who then ruled them, but it becomes perfectly acceptable when directed against Jews. Waugh apparently felt no self-consciousness about this, nor about his own spotty – to say the least – record on fascism in the ‘30s. In turns out that Waugh’s satire, which is didactic and dishonest (closely allied qualities), deprives him of his humor – which will always differ absolutely from satire, because humor is directed first of all against the author himself and his own most cherished icons and groups, and therefore is funnier and truer and more knowing than mockery of other people could ever be.
All I can say is that lying and falsehood can always be detected in literature, just as they cannot fail to be seen in one’s own writing. In my posts on this blog, I may at times insert a qualification, a retraction, an exaggeration, that is intended to please someone other than myself, some imagined censor (in Waugh’s case it’s evident enough who that was). Each time I do it, I think I have successfully camouflaged the lapse – that it has managed to blend in. But no matter how long I wait before going back to that composition, these passages stand out when I do so as if they were done over in red ink. As Van Veen reflects in Nabokov’s Ada, the quality that killed his first novel above all others was “prudence.” The lightning books, whatever else may be wrong with them, all resist this quality. They are not prudent books. They are true, embarrassingly accurate accounts of how one person saw the world at a particular moment in time, and they make no concessions to decorum or sensitivities. There can be no political correctness or religious pieties in literature – and no deliberate cruelties either -- only beliefs and ideas that people struggled for themselves with great pain and which they came to understand in a way that no one else had quite understood them before.
We’ve gotten some ways away by this point from our duchess and gallant and our professor and heroine, and I mean to return to them here at the finish. The foregoing, however, has not been an entirely irrelevant excursion. The point of all this is that “reading” à la duchesse, “reading,” that is, in two-page clumps between the distractions of love and war, is certainly something we do in real life and it therefore deserves to be depicted in literature, as does all human behavior. But if such “reading” as depicted in novels is meant also to represent reading, true reading, reading with the spirit of lightning in you, reading without the necessity of scare quotes – then it completely fails at realism. Because if a writer were to depict the act of true reading in this sense, she would have to recognize that when it is happening, when one has gotten hold of a lightning book at just the right window of time, then reading it becomes the most important psychological fact about that person, the most significant thing that is happening to her.
What I'm trying to get at is that in those blissful reading encounters, the distinction between one’s “real experience” and "read experience" entirely breaks down. The reading is the experience, it is the absolute fact, it is the most important thing so long as it lasts in the life one is leading. For those of us who do live part of our lives through books, and often an emotionally significant part, it is bound to offend our dignity to see this truth so often denied in literature. Let’s have a novel to celebrate our triumphs and disasters; let someone record our drama as people who live, at least some of the time, in books. Let’s tell the epic of reading.