A week or so ago, I recorded an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation‘s Amanda Vanstone for her program Counterpoint (on the ABC’s Radio National.) Amanda and I discussed my recent essay in Aeon Magazine on why the general term ‘intellectual property’ should be discarded, and the why the very notion of ‘intellectual property’ being any kind of property is a problematic one. The interview is now online; do give it a listen if you are so inclined.
If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible….The Leavisite position…is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about. [link added]
As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that:
The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are…transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once….While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If we are to be continually instructed to stay in the proverbial here-and-now, then how should we best do so? Reading a book sounds like a very good answer.
The ‘unconscious evocative effects’ Phillips speaks of are crucial. We–or at least the conscious components of ourselves–might not remember the details of the books we read, but the experience changes us nonetheless. We spent our days differently; there were distractions we ignored or only partially paid attention to; we altered somehow–to use an overworked phrase–our neural pathways. We have, even without our knowing it, changed our orientation to the world’s offerings. That melancholia we feel, that sudden upswing in our mood, that unaccountable response to a movie, poem, a child’s pranks, an adult’s intransigence; an archaeology on them might yet reveal to a more omniscient species the bookish well-springs of their provenance.
There are no free lunches in this universe; but nothing goes to waste either. Read on.
This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.
There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]
This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.
There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.
As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long. These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.
In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview, Jonathan Cott writes:
In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” ….as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.
Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed…Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”…with which she framed and and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings wit h parenthetical remarks and qualifying words…the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours–an inebriation with the spoken word.
I saw Sontag interviewed once, at the 92nd Street YMCA, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Her interviewer was, I think, if memory serves me correctly, the then editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter. (The interview was held shortly after the release of her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.) My reaction to hearing and seeing her speak–at some length, for the interview was no mere bagatelle–was similar to Cott’s: for years afterwards, whenever I described the interview, I would say, “She doesn’t just speak in complete, well-formed sentences; she speaks in paragraphs.” Sontag clearly had a great deal to call upon and invoke in her answers; her ability to quickly organize her thoughts into the aural form in which she presented them to her listeners was luminously on display.
It was the first time I had seen Sontag speak; I would see her once again, possibly at a book reading of some sort. She signed my copy of AIDS and its Metaphors on that occasion. Then, she did not speak as much so I did not get a chance to revisit my earlier impression of her. But I think it has remained indelible over the years.
I remember one remark in particular, from her 92nd Street Y appearance, one that made me chuckle then, and often still does so: that the right time and place to write an autobiography was after death, from beyond the grave. Everything else was premature, a too-quick reckoning of finality when the possibility for change was still at hand. (Sontag was quite obsessed by reinvention and moving on to newer selves so such a statement should not be too surprising, but it was her manner of framing it that made it distinctive.)
If only she supply us with her authoritative, clear, and direct autobiography now. I bet it’d be an interesting read.
Note: Around that time, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off, a campaign trail reporter for the New York Times made note of how the Arkansas governor was “that modern rarity, a candidate who spoke in complete sentences.” Clearly, that was a good time for the spoken word.