On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

Stories of Adderall-inspired writing binges by over-achieving students keen to upstage their cohorts and get the best grades possible are now old hat. And perhaps so are stories of writers fueling (or attempting to fuel) their writing sessions with a variety of intoxicating, calming, inspirational and brain-cobweb clearing substances. These have ranged from the ubiquitous nicotine (cigarettes, the most common of all, said to steady the nerves and enable concentration) to caffeine (to keep awake, to stimulate; most famously employed by Balzac, whose coffee consumption was truly awe-inspiring), alcohol (perhaps to reduce the anxiety associated with the blank page), marijuana (to provoke, hopefully, the odd creative thought or two); the list goes on. (I am not optimistic about the prospects of hearing any success stories associated with alcohol and marijuana when it comes to writing; certainly, in the case of alcohol, it seems to have led to too many careers being derailed.)

At first glance, Graham Greene‘s writing career does not seem to suggest ever having needed chemical stimulation to get the writing engine fired up. He wrote twenty-seven novels, two volumes of verse, four volumes of autobiography, three travel books, eight plays, ten screenplays, four collections of short stories, and four children’s books. But even he sometimes felt the need to dip into the substance reservoir in order to get an ambitious task undertaken.

By 1938, Greene had mastered the art of finishing a novel in less than a year. Still, his earnings from his writing were not enough to take care of a writer with a family that included two children. A commercially successful work was called for, one that would serve as ‘entertainment’ (to use Greene’s own term for the works in his oeuvre he deemed less serious).  Greene had returned from his travels in Mexico, joined the Officers’ Emergency Reserve and was hard at work on The Power and the Glory.

An ambitious plan presented itself: he would write an ‘entertainment’ in the mornings while continuing to work on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. A studio was rented and work began on The Confidential Agent with Greene suitably fortified:

I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words. In the afternoons, The Power and the Glory proceeded toward its ends at its own leaden pace, unaffected by the sprightly young thing that was overtaking it.

Six weeks to finish a novel at two thousand words a day, while simultaneously working on another novel. The mind boggles. This regime was not without its costs:

I was forcing the pace and I suffered for it. Six weeks of a Benzedrine breakfast diet left my nerves in shreds and my wife suffered the result. At five o’clock I would return home with a shaking hand, a depression which fell with the regularity of a tropical rain, ready to find offense in anything, and to give offense for no cause. For long after the six weeks were over, I had to continue with smaller and smaller doses to break the habit. The career of writing has its own curious forms of hell. Sometimes looking back I think that those Benzedrine weeks were more responsible than the separation of war and my own infidelities for breaking our marriage.

I own a battered paperback copy of The Confidential Agent, which I have not read thus far. When I do, I’ll be especially attentive for any traces of a jittery, wired Greene.

Note: Excerpts from: Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980, pp. 72-74.