Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In which I forget to review the actual book.

I had one of those meaningless-but-cool things happen, where after one of my last posts a friend mentioned reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I had just picked it up at the library the day before, so I figured that was a sure sign that I should read it. Right away, I mean, as opposed to shuffling it somewhere into the dangerous, teetering triple pile of books on my bedside table and then renewing it the maximum number of times allowed and finally having to read it against a deadline because I'm trying not to singlehandedly subsidize the Ottawa Public Library this year.

So anyway... The Road. I said my friend mentioned reading it, because you couldn't properly say she recommended it, which kind of makes sense. There are books where it seems ludicrous to say "I loved it" even when you feel glad you read it. It got me thinking about what I'm looking for when I read, which you might think I should have done before considering how much of my life I spend doing it, but hey, ask an addict why he's doing that heroin and see how lucid and well-thought-out an answer you get.

Finding out things you didn't know. That's an easy and obvious one. It seems incredibly decadent to me that if I want to know about how vaccines were developed, or what eighteenth century London was like, or if Robert A. Heinlein really was a big old fascist bastard, all I have to do is type in keyword in subject and away we go. I can lay my hands on any number of informative and surprising facts; unfortunately I don't seem able to remember most of them for more than a day or two, but if you catch me in that forty-eight-hour period I'm a veritable font of genius. Of course, if you'd like to talk about something other than the debatable merits of deliberately infecting oneself with cowpox, you might find me a little annoying that day.

Sharing someone else's mind space. It's such a brave act, publishing something, isn't it? In Zadie Smith's On Beauty, there's a quote about the main character being shaken by another man's appearance: "This second fellow had such lucent white skin and so prominent a plate of bone in his forehead that Howard felt oppressed by the sheer mortality of the man. Never had another living being shown him this much skull". That's often how I feel when reading a really great book where the author's little beating heart seems to glow right through.

Wallowing in envy of great writing. I discovered Michael Ondaatje in university. I've since become slightly more ambivalent about his books as stories, but man, no one can wallop you with the sheer force of his imagery like M.O. I remember a scene about someone having to go into freezing cold water to rescue a cow, and you could have sworn that this man had actually stuck his head under water in February and then come up with words that not only described it but actually made you feel it -- that numbing ache behind the eyeball. I love that feeling, when the same words that I use every day, often to indifferent effect, suddenly combine in a way that takes away my breath or renders me completely weightless for a moment.

Living in another world. Sometimes for escape, sometimes to bear witness, sometimes for the sheer admiration of the fact that someone can create one. I've tried writing fiction -- straight fiction, no genre attached. It's not pretty. Even if I manage to create minimally credible characters, I can't seem to manage to get them from the kitchen to the living room without making them seem like talking radishes. When someone can make a world that I can live in without constantly being aware that I'm 'reading a book', then they deserve my royalties. Or the library's royalties. Or something.

Trying to reach the literary tipping point. I'm convinced that at some point, when I finish the last word of the last sentence of a certain book, I will suddenly be replete with wisdom and talent, at which point I will either know everything or be able to write a great masterpiece, or possibly my ass will just become rock hard. Either way, it's going to be good.

3 comments:

NoisyBluebird said...

I was babysitting my neighbors baby and when they got home I was just finishing that book. They came in the door and I was sitting there on the sofa looking at the cover of the book that I had just put down, stunned. I told them that I had just finished it and they asked 'oh! was it good?! It won a prize. Should I read it?' Still I sat there stunned. I didn't know what to say. Was it good? What was it that made me finish it cover to cover so quickly? I told them to read it and when he returned it he said 'I'd like thet, however many hours it took to read the book, back. We continued to have a little discussion on what I thought the reader could translate from the father's experience to everyday life and he seemed to have an ah-ha moment. But I guess I can't say what that idea is for me, without taking that experience of discovery of it from someone who hasn't read the book? Nice review :).

NoisyBluebird said...

I had to go look for it but this was the quote from the book that sums it up for me.
"Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget."
I shudder...

alison said...

"I said my friend mentioned reading it, because you couldn't properly say she recommended it, which kind of makes sense. There are books where it seems ludicrous to say "I loved it" even when you feel glad you read it."

That sums up exactly my feelings for "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro. The subject matter was such that saying "I loved it" just doesn't seem right. I was crying when I finished it, but I was glad I'd read it.