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.