I was my parent’s firstborn. They claim they made all their parenting mistakes on me. For a long time I assumed this meant sticking nappy pins into my tender baby flesh, or giving me bottles of the wrong temperature; being too slow (or too quick) to pounce when I howled in the night. A little later, around early adolescence, I realised a lot of the mistakes they made had to do with the reading matter to which they exposed me. My parents have always suspected that they would make an appearance in our memoirs in some damning way, and I am an obliging woman. It seems obvious that ‘The Odyssey’ is wholly inappropriate for a four year old. The Elysian fields, overflowing with warriors wandering around with heads partially missing, or arrows sticking out of their vitals, gave me nightmares for years. It was my father reading this to me, and nothing ever gave me nightmares of the quality produced by Odysseus’s visit to the Underworld, but it was my mother that read me ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and made me claustrophobic for life.
I wonder if this early exposure to death, in its heroic rather than its mundane sense, had any lasting impact on me. Maybe our natural tendency is to make the death of anyone we have known and loved heroic, our own way of transferring their souls to the Elysian fields. Perhaps this is the reason that people become involved in the causes that promise to research the evil and unregenerate beast of a disease that took away their loved ones. It is helpful to have a beast to fight, whether the beast is Grendel, the Cyclops, or ovarian cancer – easier than to admit that death happens, and happens accidentally, with nothing heroic about it. Our reading matter is heavily implicated in creating this view: comic strips (where death is often not permanent and immutable); the worlds of speculative fiction, where people can return to the living by means of various kinds of magic; the popular press, where the trope is that the death of a loved one is transformed into something positive, and a sense of mission set in place by pain and loss.
I constantly acquire the wrong book for the wrong place. Because I have to read (and if I don’t, I start exhibiting all the signs of a junkie without her fix) I will read anything. If I am in a country where not much is printed in English, I will also pay pretty well anything for reading material. India prints the bulk of its literature in English, but Indian booksellers still see me coming, and it isn’t a question of whether they can ask me for extortionate amounts of money but rather, how much will I consider extortionate? Spufford sees himself as ’hav[ing] a little repertoire designed to make [his] reaction to the books [he] is cruising amongst likeable‘ (Spufford, 2002: 2). I am trying to be as invisible as possible, to show no interest in their wares, although the fact that I’m in the shop, or standing beside their tatty street stall at all is probably a giveaway. I am trying to slide under their radar, to present the casual (but in no way urgent) interest of a browser who really doesn’t care whether she reads or not, a browser who would be equally satisfied to meander off down the road without anything to read at all.
This façade never manages to be convincing. I exude a kind of luminous interest for them. One gentleman followed me down the street, desperate to dispose of a copy of ‘Rebecca’ that was missing some critical pages in the middle. I obviously seemed like his best chance. I was. I bought the thing, and didn’t realise until the Bangladesh border at Benapole that my chances of solving the mystery for myself had been dramatically decreased. ‘Rebecca’ is such a subtle novel, dependent on tiny observations and all the minutiae and shades of grey that du Maurier could muster, and on a later reading (that did include those elusive middle pages) it seemed an entirely different novel. I though for some years that the main protagonist’s name had been mentioned somewhere in that elusive middle section, too.
Why, you ask, was I reading such a quintessentially English author in India? Why not some Salman Rushdie, some Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, some Amitav Ghosh, some Arundhati Roy? I read all of these authors at other points in my life, but not, sadly, in the country that would have reinforced their particular sensibilities. I like the contrast. I like the pervading sense of damp Cornish drizzle contrasted with the dust and clutter of the India/ Bangladesh border; the neat fairytale forests and mossy glades of Eastern Europe compared with the wildness and wilderness of the North American frontier; the dry sparse fragrant country of the Mediterranean juxtaposed with the overwhelmingly stifling humidity of the Tropical North; the claustrophobia of King’s chilly small town Maine throwing the open islands of the Greek archipelago into relief.
There is an unreadable-in-a-lifetime amount of literature about Greece, set in Greece, written in Greece – from the classics, including my old friend ‘The Odyssey’ (I was probably old enough for it not to give me nightmares at twenty) to Don DeLillo’s sparse, evocative, beautifully creepy ‘The Names’ (which I read in Far North Queensland on a camping trip). Greek literature in translation, or literature about Greece is overwhelming in its volume – so many novels or travel books or ancient texts would have enriched the travel experience in Greece. Though perhaps it was best not to be reading ‘The Names’ in Athens. ’The Names’ begins with a piece of anti-travel writing, decrying the possibility of ever looking at something like the Acropolis and finding it possible to think your own thought about it, to view it with your own eyes:
‘For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock. I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring. The weight and moment of those worked stones promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one. So much converges there. It’s what we’ve rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion. There are obligations attached to such a visit. What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little'(De Lillo, 1982:3)
Clearly I was despising the exalted things a little by choosing to read popular American literature instead of Homer as well. I wonder what De Lillo make of that. ‘The Names’ is, in part, a critique of American influence and intrusion on other parts of the world. So why was I sitting under a grapevine reading Stephen King? My apparent lack of literary taste and etiquette had to do with the density per drachma law – I wanted the most amount of pages for the least amount of money (I had so little money that it horrifies me, now that I am older and less blasé), and I was not fussy about what I consumed. Jane Austen and Xavier Herbert were not going anywhere while I splashed around the warm shoals of easy to read fiction.
I could at least have found a copy of ‘The Magus’. That’s long. I read that a couple of years later on a suffocatingly humid weekend in North Queensland, while my first long term boyfriend was deciding whether he might prefer men instead. I drew great comfort from drawing parallels between his bad behaviour and that of the unregenerate and superficial Nicholas Urfe, and wished for a figure as powerful and archetypal as Conchis to take him away and torture him in some clever psychological manner, so maybe it was good that I hadn’t wasted the book on an authentic Greek reading experience. The theory of the most pages for the least money also forced me to discover Anne Rice.
I have a long relationship with vampire novels of exceedingly variable quality. Eastern Europe was the scene of my only ‘appropriate reading’ moment. I had read ‘Dracula’ before, admittedly, but for once I actually managed to read something in the right context, high on the Transfagaras Highway in the Transylvanian Mountains with some atmospheric howling wafting through the windows of the abandoned hut where we camped. The howling was almost certainly domestic dogs, and the Transfagaras Highway is a spectacular piece of engineering that seems out of place amongst terrified coachmen whipping their horses to get clear of bad places before dusk, but I enjoyed the ambiance anyway. Long before ‘True Blood’ became a cult TV show (which I will never see) I had worked my way through Charlaine Harris’s body of work, revolted by the seemingly endless violence, amazed that someone could keep upping the ante in so obvious a way (we’ve done vampires and were-things and witches and psychics…mmm…what’s next? I know, fairies) but addicted, none the less.
Why do young girls (and many perfectly intelligent women as well) love the vampire novel so much? Particularly when vampire literature so often evidences ‘a hostility toward female sexuality felt by the culture at large’ (Stevenson 1988:145). Maybe it is a sense of identification with ‘the girl vampire [who] comes to understand how she has been entrapped by the oedipal configuration of a patriarchal culture that structures the feminine as both object of desire and object of horror’ (Doane & Hodges, 1990:424). Maybe I just like vampires. Not the ‘Twilight’ kind, but real ones, scary vampires, non-vegetarian blood-suckers that prowl through archetypal nightmare and around a million theses and dissertations written by academics as fascinated as I am.
I am sure American author James Fenimore Cooper was a lovely man, one you could have round for dinner to discuss ecology and the plight of the First Nations, competent and fun on a camping trip, but I can’t read him. My brain starts to dissolve under those torturous sentences. Maybe this is my own fault, and I had become too used to modern prose (although Mark Twain didn’t like his prose style much either) but the only reason I got through the thing twice (in Lithuania, rather than the American/ Canadian border regions) was because there was nothing else in English. Mark Twain commented that of the 115 sins of bad writing, Cooper committed 114. He isn’t shy about listing these sins, either:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humour is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that (Twain, 1895, online).
D.H. Lawrence, too, was critical of the man, although for different reasons,perceiving Cooper as illustrative of the worst that the new world, isolated from the gracious influences of the old world, had to offer – ‘The essential American soul ….hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer’ (Watts, 1993: 56). I am quietly pleased that my belief that no human can read Fenimore Cooper and remain sane has the support of these two literary giants.
I have to freely acknowledge that I would read anything anywhere, because I am addicted to the printed word. I read compulsively, obsessively, and it is not always quality literature. Some of the things I read are so bad I have to hide them if anyone comes close so that no one will ever know that I read English chick-lit, or that I devoured something called ’Vampire Academy’ after exams last semester (large print, picture of over made-up teenager on the cover, storyline that could be kindly described as ’simplistic’ or less kindly described as ’inane’).
I would do better to watch television, although I have spent many years defending print over picture,using the following reasoning. A book is portable. My friends, housemates and partners over the years have all commented, almost never favourably, on my inability to sit still and watch television. A DVD may be just manageable, with its capacity to be paused and returned to, but it isn’t portable. I do not understand why reading is meant to require a greater attention span than television. Digital, re-playable, endlessly available television has not made it into my corner of the world, but when it does I will still feel the same about the sedentary, forceful nature of viewing. You have to sit there, and let it be poured into you. Television is not interactive. You cannot contribute to the viewing experience in any way, and you can’t carry it around with you.
The need to carry books with me means that I am extremely hard on them. My whole family has this vice, and I’m sure that none of our tidier and more cautious friends like to lend us anything. None of us ever collected series of books and kept them pristine, in order, on the shelf. Unfortunately, none of us respect anyone else’s desire to do so either. A high school friend lent me his valued copies of Thomas Harris (I was going through a violent stage, which I like to blame on early exposure to the ‘Odyssey’) on the proviso that I didn’t read them while eating breakfast. He only ever read on a particular chair, in a particular room, and never while eating. The trails of crumbs that I leave to mark my place were never going to be a feature of his life. Our library began the practice of gluing a blank page to the back of books so we can make our personal marks to remind us if we have read a particular book. I just look for the cracked spine, the coffee rings, the fragments of foliage that I often leave as bookmarks, a slick of dog hair caught under the edge of the neatly applied contact, a paw-print on the fly-leaf.
A book can be carried, dipped into at whim, left facedown on the toilet floor, wedged onto the dashboard of the car, occasionally jammed into the interstices of the fence on a sunny day. A book can be read walking home from the bus-stop (around the age of seven I perfected a kind of peripheral vision scan that meant I was less likely to acquire injuries) a book can be read in the bathtub with a glass of red, or on a long journey through dull terrain(no one has ever written deathless prose about the stretch of the Bruce Highway between Sarina and Mackay). A book can be reading the queue at Centrelink (and distract you from the inevitable denial of any financial support from Austudy); in the waiting room at the doctors; in the moments at work when I feel the urge to take my Asperger’s affected workmate and shake him till his teeth clog up his voice box; in the moments between putting the three minute egg into water and taking it out again. There is no physical space, no moment of the day,no irritating situation, no boredom or frustration, that is not improved by a book.
Reading is an addiction. Reading does not make you an intellectual. Reading does not even make you a better person. Reading is what you do because if you don’t, withdrawal symptoms will make you twitch and render you irritable and snappish with those TV watchers in the next room. Reading is anti-social, non-productive and a great distraction from what you should be doing. ‘Reading time is still limited, no matter how many commitments of work or friendship I am willing to ditch’, says Spufford (2002:5) and this is the problem. The ear-aches I get every winter,necessitating time off work, frequently coincide with a rewarding abebooks foray or fruitful library trip. If I ever ring in sick with pneumonia, we can safely assume it will be the week I have decided to finally read ‘War and Peace’.
De Lillo, D. 1982 ‘The Names’, Knopf, New York
Doane, J & Hodges, D, 1990, ‘Undoing Feminism: From the Preoedipal to Postfeminism in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles‘, American Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 3 pp. 422-442
Fowles, J. 1996, ‘Behind The Magus’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1,pp.58-68
Neale, R.,1992,‘Writers on writing : an anthology : Introduction’in Writers on Writing: An Anthology, ed. Robert Neale. Auckland, N.Z. : Oxford University Press, pp. 9-19
Spufford, F., 2002, ‘Confessions of an English Fiction Eater’ in The Child That Books Built,Faber & Faber, pp. 1-22
Stevenson, J.A, 1988, ‘A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula’ PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 2, pp. 139-149
Twain, M. 1895, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’ online @http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/rissetto/offense.html
Watts, S. 1993, ‘Through a Glass Eye, Darkly: James Fenimore Cooper as Social Critic‘, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 55-74